stephen harper

The Painful Demise of Thomas Mulcair


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By: james Di Fiore

When Olivia Chow announced she would run to become the mayor of Toronto it looked like she couldn’t lose. Toronto had just spent 4 years dealing with Rob Ford, a cartoon-like politician whose exploits need no rehashing.

Toronto knew Olivia. She had a presence in our city for decades. She had a famous husband who propelled the NDP to Official Opposition status and gave them 100+ seats in the House of Commons.

In short, we needed no introductions. We just needed Olivia to be herself.

Instead, in one of the most badly calculated political strategies in Canada’s history, Olivia gave us someone we had never met before. She changed her clothes, her way of speaking, her overall demeanor. She hired political goons while giving her rivals all they needed to completely destroy her.

Chow finished a distant third place as John Tory rode to victory ahead of Doug Ford, the conservative who finished second.

This federal election is showing a lot of parallels.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair had everything going for him. His party was well ahead of the conservatives and liberals in the polls. He had impressed Canadians over the past two years by holding Stephen Harper to account in the House of Commons, especially during Question Period. A majority of Canadians had become wise to the antics of Stephen Harper; his incremental strategy of ushering in anti-democratic policies, his disregard for evidence based decision-making, and his contempt for ethics, especially in regards to the Senate scandal.

Canada finally had a competent politician holding Harper’s feet to the fire, and Canadians rewarded his feistiness by propelling him to the top of the polls.

And then it happened. Harper announced an elongated 78 day campaign, and Mulcair decided to do his best Olivia Chow impersonation by needlessly reinventing himself. He or his handlers decided to abandon the Mulcair that won us over, and place a stiff, faux jovial imposter in his stead. His entire demeanor had all the authenticity of a wax museum figure, and his support began to plummet.

Mulcair had been known for years in Ottawa as Angry Tom, and it was Angry Tom who Canadians needed at a time when they felt exhausted by a prime minister only interested in retaining his power. Moreover, Mulcair’s new persona was matched only by his decision to push the party towards the right, alienating his base and confusing undecided voters who were not looking for outlandish promises like balanced budgets.

Add a masterful Liberal campaign and a surprising performance by Justin Trudeau, and the writing on the wall became ever more clear: the NDP were in third place, and the notion of their first crack at power had all but evaporated.

Campaigns are not all that complex at the end of the day. People are not always savvy, but almost all of us have instincts that tell us who is being real with us, and who is trying to play a role. In this election, Mulcair was playing the role of a guy who wasn’t being himself, and Canadians rewarded him by making sure he would never become prime minister.

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The Great Canadian Threeway

Some said it would never be.

After all, these are all very different types of people. They do not have needs that align just right, or any discernable chemistry whatsoever. One is too controlling; one is too rough; and the other is too pretty not to be the constant center of attention. He’s pretty much a tease. When under the same roof they tend to bicker with one another, providing theatrical styles of questions and answers, plus an uncanny ability to appear awkward or overly dramatic.

Incompatible, we said. We’re probably right, but this year’s election may provide just the right setting for this threesome to end up sleeping in the same bed nonetheless.

I predict the three major parties will each win between 90-125 seats and thus comprise the most complicated House of Commons in Canadian history. Canada will be a tripartite state at a time when polarization has never been more popular.

All euphemisms aside, this odd trio of leaders live in a constant state of strategy, mostly due to the government’s neo-PR style of leading. The Harper Government should be a case study for all PR students all across the country, a real life example of how to spin, pivot, flim-flam and deflect until the media is exhausted and citizens are too cloudy to care. Like a good celebrity caught in scandal, the Harper Government ignores its controversies, possibly to their detriment, and now must distract Canadians through national security lingo and fearful rhetoric. Instead of getting in front of a scandal they act like there has never been one.

With the prospect of a spring election nearly dead, Stephen Harper now hopes Canadians – a people not known for their emotional endurance in politics – can remain fearful for another seven months. Lots can happen in seven months, and Canadians are already showing they are not beholden to any given ideology or party, especially after nearly a decade of single party rule, even if half the ride was inside two minority governments.

National security issues have changed the landscape, making Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair the natural spokespeople for the right and left, respectively. Justin Trudeau’s strategy of straddling the ideological fence on issues pertaining to national security is muddying his message. Mulcair has proven that thoughtful debate can co-exist with a staunchly left wing perspective, and, in turn, Harper’s aggressive military tendencies can be propped up by real, defendable arguments. You may not agree with either of them, but both make a decent case for their positions. Just try not to read the polling while parties make their case.

The shifting ground needs to settle, and new realities are shaping the landscape, adjusting the lens we peer through while we mull over whom to support. We tend to take a long time to learn the facts of an issue, or a piece of legislation, if we bother learning it at all, and polling companies do a disservice when they collect their premature and therefore toxic data indicating we support issues we do not yet understand. Those polls are cited for months, even as support for the legislation dwindles, losing undecided voters who feel strongly about whatever issue is being misrepresented. In the case of Bill C-51, Canadians are rapidly sliding towards a lack of support for the bill, making Trudeau’s position the weakest when he voted for legislation he said he did not believe in.

Mulcair stands alone as being secure in his opposition to Bill C-51 from the beginning, and the only leader riding a wave of momentum by an increasingly skeptical public. The NDP have figured out the best way to question a neo-PR government is to apply a neo-prosecutorial style of managing the issues. Mulcair is light on rhetoric, heavy on evidentiary-seeking queries. When Harper answers a Mulcair question in QP, you can almost see his mind analyzing how to dance around Mulcair’s finely placed demands for substantive answers.

Trudeau still has his appeal. His marijuana stance, while caricaturized by the right, does make him attractive to a niche of left-of-center voters who may not normally head to the polls on Election Day. Their “evidence-based policy making” promise allows the Liberals to take advantage of several single-issue voters, a strong positive for a party seeking support from both the left and the right.

As for Harper, he’s all-in. The political chess master has a million pieces on the board but very few pawns left to sacrifice. Nearly a dozen of his handpicked appointees are under criminal investigation, awaiting court appearances, out of public service altogether or languishing inside prison walls. He has all but lost his long awaited surplus and will eventually have to contend with dead Canadian soldiers and dead Iraqi/Syrian civilians from wayward Canadian bombs. After all, this is now the Harper Government’s War, meaning they take full responsibility for its glory and defeats alike.

Later this year, the 20% of us who are flexible with our ballots will sprinkle each party with just enough votes to hand victory to nobody. Perhaps the Conservatives will finish third. Maybe second. Three parties with 100 seats makes the results almost meaningless, and the ferocious partisanship will have to water itself down as two or more parties come together to decide policy. No party wants to draw the ire of frustrated Canadians after a majority of which did not cast a ballot for any one of them. Politicians will pretend to play nice while leaking committee minutes to the media or trading barbs during in-camera sessions.

Now, back to the euphemisms.

All the leaders’ antics on Parliament Hill will be on full display, and it won’t be pretty. It will be nauseating, full stop. They are three entities, bumping and scratching against one another, living in the same House, frothing and spitting, screaming and occasionally using dirty words, bound together on old English wood.

A three-way like no other, destining Parliament to become a very, very seaty place.

Like Jack Layton’s Passing, Jim Flaherty’s Death Exposes the Worst Among Us

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The Far Left Proves it can be just as shameful as the Far Right in Canada

By: James Di Fiore

 

 

When Jack Layton died his legacy was such that many people who did not share his politics felt the deep sadness one feels when a member of the family passes away. Layton had a quality that blurred political lines and embraced emotional collectivism instead.

Today, another man in politics passed away, and he had much of the same effect on those he worked with, and the people he represented. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty suffered a massive heart attack and died at his home at the age of 64.

Immediately the news carried sentiments from people on all sides of the aisle. Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair could barely hold in the tears as he expressed his condolences. One after another non-conservatives told stories of the lovable leprechaun and his ability to connect with his political opposites.

But of course, like seagulls with irritable bowel syndrome on a precariously windy day, bombs start falling from the vitriolic fringe. “Good riddance,” said one genius. “I guess he won’t be able to mess up another budget,” said another. And while we all know the Internet is a place where taking things personally is both silly and pointless, it still remains depressing to know there are people in our midst who have lost the ability to censor their virtual selves.

I am reminded of Christopher Hitchens when he absolutely destroyed Jerry Falwell on the day the good reverend died. I think the difference between Falwell, Layton and Flaherty is twofold: first, Falwell was repugnant and used religious dogma to judge other people. Second, Hitchens was so much more intellectually clever than the sloped-brow contingent online.

It’s been about an hour since Flaherty passed away. I had to stop reading the comments. I had to do the same when Layton passed away. Instead, I’d like to point out something that should give us all pause.

As when Layton died, the one demographic who demonstrated the most poise, the most civility and the classiest sentiments is the same demographic whom we universally chastise on the regular: politicians. Politicians are often dishonest, almost always self-serving and probably wouldn’t blink an eye if their policies made you lose your job. But in a time of mourning they are precisely the embodiment of how people should behave, like in the immediate aftermath of Layton and Flaherty’s deaths.

So do yourself a favour…don’t read the comment section of any media outlet for the next few days. Then, never read them again.

It’s The Thomas Mulcair Show

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By: James Di Fiore

Before 2013, Question Period was considered the ultimate in Ottawa grandstanding. The opposition would stand up, bellow out a cynical commentary followed by a question laced with bias and contempt for the government. Then, the government representative stood up, deflected the crux of the question with a transitional phrase, pivot towards an evasive response and end with an old man zinger against the opposition. And on and on it went.

So yes, the House of Commons is and always has been considered political theatre. It isn’t Stratford, however. Hell, it isn’t even a grade school play. It’s an exhausting display of political cynicism conducted by our beloved elected leaders who used to seek comfort in the fact that hardly anyone ever tuned in.

Thanks to Thomas Mulcair, Canadians are now tuning in. And they like about half of what they see.

Mulcair has decided to do away with the traditional redundant theatre and has opted for a more prosecutorial style of quizzing the prime minister. Gone are the self serving digs and slanted PR questions, replaced with pointed, deliberate inquisitions meant to make Harper look unclothed when he answers as if the old game was still being played. That’s the rub. He’s the only one trying to cling to how Question Period was conducted before Mulcair changed the game.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau hasn’t followed suit, perhaps because he does not want to appear like a rookie clinging to the coattails of his rival. But Trudeau’s lack of QP gusto only makes Mulcair’s tactics look even more impressive. Trudeau would be better served coming up with his own standout strategy while in the House, even if it does elevate Mulcair’s influence. Hell, if Trudeau really is a new kind of politician, one who is not afraid to be polite and cordial to the competition, then he would gladly join Mulcair in his quest to make Harper look like an evasive thief rather than a statesman. In fact, Trudeau should publicly tell Canadians he supports the new style of interrogation as it would reinforce his apparent puppies and rainbows strategy.

Then he should promptly drop the puppies and rainbows strategy.

Trudeau might be pleased with the polls, but Mulcair is no lightweight. He knows Canadians are watching the House closer than ever before, and he knows the reason is him. Therefore, every day that goes by where Trudeau looks like it’s his first Christmas sitting at the adult table is a day where his Liberals remain stagnant in the polls, as they have been for a month already.

If you can’t beat them, copy them…then give credit where it’s due.

Stephen Harper: A Resignation in Waiting

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By: James Di Fiore

Resignation. It all sounds so serious.

When analyzing Stephen Harper’s political rise you will not see evidence of a man who gets shook. A practitioner of incremental politics, Harper is the chess master of Prime Ministers, a strategic, successful player who has perfected the craft of staying out of check. Harper’s undeniable professional preference is saying as little as possible while legislating as much as he can. He answers to no one, and omits key details of his biggest ideas, cramming them inside omnibus bills alongside a host of other uncorrelated legislation. He hooks his rivals, studies their weaknesses and wins game after game after game.

A majority government has proven to be been the only environment where Harper can govern as a true Reform-conservative. Without it he has to negotiate, compromise or navigate his convictions away from the gradual, rightward pace he has fostered to retain power. After 5 years as the prime minister of a minority government, Harper finally achieved his long sought majority and Canadians saw this pace of incrementalism quicken. A blank cheque was written, and it has been Harper’s sole currency ever since.

Enter Senator Mike Duffy, one of three lepers in the current Senate debacle. Along with Senators Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, all three appointed by the prime minister himself, Duffy is currently fighting for his very livelihood. It’s at that point – when you have nothing left to lose – that you can finally go for broke. Today Duffy went for broke. And while his version of events is that of a victim; a meek ex journalist, politically unripened, feeling extreme pressure behind the scenes of power, Harper has at the very least underestimated the savvy of the newsman turned senator. But Harper, who views journalists as a cabal of adversarial left-wingers, probably thought Duffy was just happy to be elevated to such a distinguished position that he would forfeit his reputation and integrity for the good of the party.

Not so fast.

Fate lies in the simplest places sometimes. A chain of emails between Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright, Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton and Duffy could provide the embattled senator with his main pillar of defence to the motions to expel him; that he was told he was not breaking any rules by repaying the now infamous $90, 000. This pillar of defence just so happens to be Harper’s albatross, forcing him to testify under oath whenever Duffy and Co. get their day in court.

And if even the smallest of accusations against the prime minster are proven to be accurate, such as lying to parliament as to when and what he knew about Wright’s peculiarly issued cheque – Stephen Harper will most likely resign long before the next election. If the conservatives did conduct such a needless and disastrous public relations stunt, a stunt resulting in Harper losing the loyalty of a fellow conservative for the second time this year in public, it will poison the party among voters and the base they rely on so heavily.

And if Duffy’s most stinging stanza – ‘Today you have an opportunity to stand strong and use your power to restrain the unaccountable power of the PMO’ – persuades enough conservative senators to vote against Duffy’s expulsion from the Senate, Harper will be left without any clothes for the first time in his long political life. He will be surrounded. He will have to retreat behind his pawns. He began today even before the Duffy address to the senate. During Question Period, the prime minister punted the most poignant questions raised by Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair to his seldom-used parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra. Calandra did his best Stephen Harper impersonation and deflected questions, meandering to arbitrary remarks about the recent European free trade deal. In short, Harper tried to hide from Canadians in plain view, losing more credibility every time he stood up in the house.

Of course, there is a chance Duffy was telling a very tall tale. But one of two things seem apparent; either Duffy told a thousand lies, or Harper has been telling one for over half a year.

As many conservative strategists have said, including Stephen Harper himself, according to Duffy: The only thing that matters is the perception of the public. Nothing else.

It’s a good bet the public’s new perception has turned that once blank cheque into checkmate.

Stephen Harper – A Minister Past his Prime

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BY: James Di Fiore

History will probably be kind to Stephen Harper.  If one were to be honest about his political career, it would be difficult not to place him in the upper echelon of Canadian prime ministers. By the time he leaves office he will be in the top 6 of the longest serving prime ministers in history. You may not have agreed with him, you may even hate him, or you could consider yourself one of his loyal supporters. But no matter how you perceive him, the man knows how the game is played.

As Machiavellian as Harper is, one must wonder how much time he has left at the top of the political class in Canada. Ironically, most of the cracks in his power formed after he finally won his long sought majority government. Backbench MPs with a libertarian or religious bent began to publicly criticize party muzzling. Defense spending on the F-35 file was a staple in the news cycle for months. The Robocalls investigation is far from over, and the latest Auditor General’s report can’t account for over 3 billion dollars meant for counter terrorism measures.  The temporary foreign workers issue might be the worst of all, especially now that we know it accounts for almost one third of the government’s “900, 000 net new jobs”, a centerpiece of their answers during Question Period.

All of these issues are symptoms of a government increasingly vulnerable to the temptations of majority status. Indeed, as a prime minister of a minority parliament Harper was predictably more measured in how he governed. When he prorogued Parliament to avoid a coalition challenge from the opposition it came off as cynical and calculating. But it worked. A majority government gave him new opportunities, and the temptation to lead through ideological aspirations manifested through omnibus legislation and a transformational mindset. Harper, who had begun his political career stoking the flames of anti-Trudeauism, began to fit nicely into the oppositional label of being a leader with a hidden agenda. Unlike Pierre Trudeau, who served three consecutive terms in majority governments, Harper would be forced to adjust his public image from ideologue to centrist to a modern conservative. He had hoped Canadians would follow him, tilted towards conservatism by both his influence and a natural societal progression. But his majority was enabled by just 39% of the people, the smallest majority government by percentage in Canadian history and not the ideal starting point for a wanna-be transformational prime minister.

Cue the perennial, predictable cracks. The omnibus legislation was out of date, pillared by legislative caricatures such as super jails, lax environmental policies and new rules meant to silence intergovernmental workers like researchers and scientists. Harper’s loyal yes-men began to regularly praise Israel, condemn the United Nations and subtly float climate change denials. Not to say you can’t have nice things to say about Israel, but Canadians are not used to platitudes being expressed about a nation so unimportant to our economic or social well being at such a repetitive pace. To many, this over-the-top collection of platitudes was either confusing or cheap, meant to impress or placate rather than genuinely serve the Canadian people. The slams against the UN have been a neocon staple in the United States, but Canada was not used to that kind of rhetorical sloganeering. As for climate change denial, this has been more incremental and far more subliminal. The conservative base is a westernized, oil soaked clan of evangelicals and libertarians, but the rest of the country rightly believes climate change is real and, more importantly, worth fighting against. Conventional wisdom indicates Harper knows his ideology is not shared by at least 75% of the nation; so omnibus legislation is less about a hidden agenda, and more about leapfrogging consensus.

This inability to influence Canadians of a new conservatism means Harper will likely ride into the sunset in 2016, the year following the next federal election. Until then, his calculations will lead him to one of two places. Either he will smartly revert back to a more pragmatic role near the center, or he will continue the experiment of attempting to forcibly indoctrinate Canadians to the right. Reverting back will mean betraying his principles, and the task of indoctrinating a nation whose pulse is demonstrably moderate will ultimately hand power back to the opposition. In other words, he has already piqued politically, and the process of plucking a new leader from his ranks has likely been stirring in his mind for at least 6 months.

Harper is a polarizing politician. And while history may be kind to him, one must wonder if ideological ambitions will play a role in just how kind history will be in the end.

Harper VS Trudeau – Canadians Want a Fight

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Conservatives in Canada could learn a tough lesson over the next 2 years. If the past month taught them anything, and there is no evidence to say it has, it should be as follows: do not blow the dust off the same old political playbook you have been recycling for half a dozen elections. There is something demonstrably different about this political cycle.

His name is Justin Trudeau. And no, he is not a proven leader whatsoever.

He is not the Canadian Barack Obama. Trudeau is a privileged trust fund kid who is just beginning to shed his precocious image, and at age 41 being precocious is not a favorable quality. He over annunciates his words, he sometimes refers to himself in the third person and his off the top banter is often ill advised. All that being said, his arrival happens to coincide with some of the most interesting political caveats the country has ever seen.

First and foremost, young people are becoming engaged. This has always been something conservatives feared, but the old adage is true; young people, for the most part, lean left. Always have, always will. The 2010 Calgary Mayoral election was the start of a brand new idea in electoral campaigns. Grass roots strategies reinforced a savvy, online presence that was not just directed towards younger voters, but executed by young people as well. Naheed Nenshi’s campaign ought to be in political science textbooks across the country. Trudeau knows this and has added something Nenshi did not have; name recognition and celebrity status.

Secondly, the recent presidential elections south of the border has made Canadians universally repulsed by dirty politics. We don’t just dislike ominous music, grainy footage and quotes taken out of context, we find it to be fundamentally un-Canadian and lacking even moderate ethics.

So when the conservatives released their first attack ad against Trudeau most people were expecting something to snooker the newly elected leader, something he couldn’t run from. Namely, himself. But instead of a savvy attack ad spotlighting Trudeau’s inexperience or rookie status, the conservatives opted for a misleading collage of half truths, cheap shots and blatant dishonesty. They did adjust their playbook from the days when they hammered Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, only they went in the wrong direction.

If the conservatives were playing baseball, this strategy of mocking the young Liberal leader would be akin to trying to execute the hidden ball trick. Sure, they may fool their opponents and the fans once in a while, but if everyone is expecting the same trick all the time, how successful will it be in the long run?

Meanwhile, Thomas Mulcair and the NDP are coming apart at the seams. Unlike the conservatives who are mildly concerned about the impact of Trudeau’s leadership, the NDP are frustrated at the prospect of their popularity lasting just one election cycle. When Trudeau made his first appearance at Question Period, Mulcair tried to overshadow the youngster by frantically screaming his inquiries about the temporary foreign workers issue, and by doing so he slid nicely into the exact generalizations his enemies have branded him with since he became leader; he’s angry, unstable and arrogant. You can now add ‘spooked’ to that list.

Not to be outdone, Harper managed to squander a golden opportunity to expose Trudeau’s lack of experience in the aftermath of the recent bombings in Boston. Trudeau sloppily pontificated about the motives and mindset of the bomber(s) saying “But there is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded.” This was a gaffe. Not only was it too soon to ponder the broader question of societal exclusion, or even mental illness, after all there was no suspect at the time of his interview. But it also showed Trudeau’s lack of statesmanship. But rather than take the high road and offer unsolicited advice to his young counterpart, a move that would have made Harper seem less wooden then he normally does (the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral would have been a bonus too), he politicized the act of terror by accusing Trudeau of rationalizing the killings. In case you need a refresher on American politics, Harper’s statement was one knee-jerk away from saying Trudeau had emboldened the terrorists. It was a missed opportunity, for sure, but it was so much more than that. It punctuates a long term problem for a government who overtly disrespects everything about their rivals and reveals the mind of a Prime Minister who may be past his prime. He seems, for all intents and purposes, out of ideas.

It also doesn’t help to have your parliamentary mouthpiece oversimplify global terrorism. Pierre Poilievre, a normally articulate conservative MP, wanted to punctuate the idea that terrorists should not be coddled. The problem? Nobody said they should. Additionally, every intelligence agency on the planet believes in finding the root causes of terrorism. This technique is Tea Party politics in its purest form. What Poilievre was really doing, especially when he doubled down on that statement in the House the next day, was deliberately watering down the electorate by simplifying terrorism into a good VS evil context. In short, the conservatives do not trust Canadians with details. Trudeau, while silly for being so quick to opine about root causes, Forrest Gumped the conservatives through his gaffe and accidentally forced them to reply through several gaffes of their own.

A simple way to take the wind out of Trudeau’s sail immediately is for the Harper government to go positive. If Trudeau predicts more attack ads, hit the airwaves with your government’s success stories instead. If Trudeau stumbles during question period, don’t smirk with glee but ignore it and answer the question. The more Trudeau looks like he has a secret copy of the conservative playbook, the more attractive his leadership becomes.

One guarantee over the next two years will be Trudeau’s broken promise of not going negative. He genuinely believes he can win without attacking Harper, a monumental error in judgment. He has the opportunity to attack differently from his rivals who are stuck in a time warp where overly simplistic, inaccurate ads hit hard and resonate. They don’t. Not anymore. The only people responding to the school yard ads where facts don’t matter are the base of the conservative party and over the hill consultants who haven’t been relevant since Bob Rae was premiere of Ontario. And for all intents and purposes, this base has exactly zero influence on the rest of Canada. The conservative movement has relied on a peculiar strategy regarding their most loyal supporters; misinformation and ignorance. The last Alberta election spotlighted this disconnect when the far-right Wild Rose Party were trounced by the Progressive Conservatives. Even in Alberta, the bastion of conservativeness in Canada, people were gun shy to throw their votes behind climate change denying, uncomfortably religious people who more closely resembled the worst of the Tea Party movement rather than the best of Canadiana.

This country simply does not have the market necessary to move in a direction where science doesn’t matter, where sloganeering replaces substance and where condescension trumps respect for voters. This is Canada. We believe in man made global warming. We believe in evidence based policies. We believe marketing ploys should only be used when selling products we don’t need. But we do need leadership.

And if you are Justin Trudeau, stop pretending you are still getting to know Canadians. We got it. We get you. Now tell us your ideas or lose us forever.

And for heaven’s sake, put the boxing gloves back on and let’s see a fight.

Stephen Harper: Leading through Apathy Since 2006

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Some say it’s a weak opposition. Others say Stephen Harper is a centrist at heart. Heck, some even call him the most intelligent politician in Canadian history.

 

Or, just maybe, it’s a lot simpler than any of that.

 

Take this past week. First, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unveils the federal budget for Canadians. The headlines are uniform in the daily papers of all political stripes: the budget contains very little details and no new information pertaining to several austerity-centric measures. It was as though he thought Canadians would shrug and move on.

 

And he was probably right.

 

Then, just a few days later, our media inundates Canadians with, wait for it, panda bears. Yeah, that’s right. Our prime minister is tight lipped about the budget which affects all citizens, but he rolls out the red carpet and puppeteers the media talking heads for the symbolic gesture of China loaning our country cute little panda bears.

 

Even Ron Burgundy would call that a slap in the face.

 

So why is Prime Minister Harper so blatant in his lack of details with the public on vital domestic issues? The answer is two fold. First, he believes Canadians are ruled by apathy and a lack of appetite for politics in general. History shows he’s probably right about that. Second, his entire style of governing depends on apathy. But that’s just the beginning.

 

In order for a government to run itself on the collective apathy of a nation, it must run like a bloated PR agency. While most governments use public relations and media speak when handling the press, the Harper government uses these tools to handle the citizens of Canada, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

 

They don’t even try to hide it anymore. During the days of a minority government Harper could afford to communicate just enough to get by, and even when he prorogued Parliament in order to stave off the warning of a coalition government, he simply retreated to 24 Sussex until apathy was in full force, then placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of separatists and their enablers.

 

With the cost of the F-35 fighters jets he stretched out an explanation for so long, Canadians practically begged the media to stop reporting. Same with changes to EI and the Canadian pension plan. Same with the Nexen deal. In fact, giving China an all-access pass to our most profitable industry without giving Canadians details was only topped by the condescending manner in which he defended Canadian interests: by passing new rules on foreign takeovers the week AFTER the deal was sealed.

 

After all, it would only be in the news cycle for a few days, then its off to Apathy Land again for Canadians.

 

The worst part about leading this way is not how insulting it is to ordinary people. That’s just the accent. The real stinger is how majority government status prevents Harper and Co. from even trying to appear as if he is genuinely interested in the pulse of the nation. He isn’t, and until that pulse reads anything other than “in a coma”, Canadians should feel ashamed and responsible for everything this government does, quietly or not.

Harper, Trudeau and Canadian Political Theater

If Trudeau wins leadership the next election will be the first of its kind

By: James Di Fiore

Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau all of a sudden have a lot in common: they are both starring in new roles in an old theater, Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Harper is currently king, but his new role will be a majority government incumbent.Trudeau plays the role of the prince looking for the same crown his father once wore. It’s all very theatrical, don’t you know.

The scripts for both sides are being written, ancillary issues are being considered and then discarded or approved. Real-time scandals and audience polling carve out the plot. Remembering your lines is crucial. In Canadian politics, this is going to be about as entertaining as it gets.

Harper and Trudeau both have clear strengths in opposite disciplines. You won’t see the prime minister waxing poetic to a throng of youthful supporters, just as you won’t see Trudeau giving a speech about how interest rates and subsidies help foster growth in energy sector commodities. These differences are stark and may prove to be a generational difference pitting the young against baby boomers and seniors. At least, that’s what Harper is hoping for. Conservatives at all levels of government in Canada have something other than faux fiscal conservatism in common; they all believe in the tried and true theory that young people will always be apathetic. It never fails. Until recently, that is.

In 2010, Calgary mayoral candidate Naheed Nenshi was looking like a 2nd or even 3rd place finisher. All pundits and pollsters saw conservative Ric McIvor as the front runner. About two weeks before the election I had a meet and greet with McIvor and his chief campaign adviser. I asked the adviser how they plan on mobilizing the youth vote. He replied emphatically “We aren’t. They never show up.” Two weeks later Nenshi won the election, and all the pundits, including Nenshi himself, credited his victory to mobilizing young people with grass roots tactics and inspirational dialogue. The campaign should be in text books and considered required reading for every political science student in the country.

And while federal and municipal politics are worlds apart, the overriding lesson is still the same: if you speak to them, they will vote. We can already see Canadian conservatives preemptively brand Trudeau as an unproven messiah being propped up by bleeding hearts and hippies. This shows both the cynicism and desperation of staunch conservatives who genuinely despise Trudeau but understand he still may win an election for the Liberals. It’s a schizophrenic existence to believe your political rival is both unqualified and a serious contender.

Meanwhile, Harper is still in the honeymoon stage of his first majority government. More omnibus bills are being drafted, more environmental regulations are being scrapped and more scrutiny is being lofted towards the government in the form of tainted meat and abortion debates. Forever the pragmatist, Harper knows his reign cannot sustain itself through polarizing social issues or defensive posturing. He has a tangible problem right now: how do I feed red meat to my base, maintain crucial support and continue to be perceived as governing from the center? The answer is the same now as it was in 2006 when Harper won his first minority government: rely on voter apathy while incrementally indoctrinating Canadians to the conservative fold. It is not only an uphill climb, it’s also very unrealistic. When you lead a country to a majority government with just 39% of the popular vote, you have a shaky majority. And while electoral reformers see this as evidence to support ideas like proportional representation, the reality is this kind of majority government is difficult to maintain.

All of this posturing and media driven showdown may look like it leaves Thomas Mulcair out in the cold. The conventional wisdom is as follows: Mulcair needs to block the Liberals from eating up seats in Quebec while growing party support in Ontario. Trudeau could be problematic for Mulcair if he can charm Quebeckers into coming back to the Liberal fold, and Harper is quietly relying on the vote being split in a province where he is enormously unpopular. Naturally, this potential reality makes merger talk behind the scenes more prevalent, an annoyance to party faithfuls who still have hope in ideology or their party’s historical importance for the country.

There is one dormant caveat Trudeau is thinking about constantly. If the youth can become inspired enough to shed their apathy and become engaged in politics, he will change the political landscape in Canada, at least for one election. Like Nenshi in Calgary, Trudeau needs to inspire young people, give them a seat at the political table and tap into the moderate wings of student unions and the Occupy movements. A measured approach to both these demographics is a tight-wire act and a tough task for any politician, especially a relative rookie on the national scene. However, perhaps Trudeau is the first Canadian politician we have seen who has the ability to throw roses to all sides without coming off as pandering. Or, perhaps his efforts will be seen as opportunistic and without substance, echoing Trudeau’s current critics who already believe the heir apparent is in way over his head.

But it all makes for great theater.

Know Your Enemies…then brand them accordingly.

Why the Next Liberal Leader Needs to be More Like Stephen Harper

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 By: James Di Fiore

It was the worst kept secret in Ottawa – that former Ontario premier, Bob Rae, who used to don NDP orange, would eventually be able to run for the leadership of his new party: the recently decimated federal Liberal Party of Canada.

To the Harper conservatives, it is an early Christmas present. But they have their own issues to sift through.

The Omnibus Budget

When Harper was the leader of the loyal opposition, he had many things to say about the ability of a majority Parliament to consolidate seemingly unrelated bills into an omnibus collage.

“First, there is a lack of relevancy of these issues. The omnibus bill we have before us attempts to amend several different existing laws.

Second, in the interest of democracy I ask: How can members represent their constituents on these various areas when they are forced to vote in a block on such legislation and on such concerns?”

It is the kind of quote that should be repeated over and over again. But this is Canada, and only one party is effective at branding their opponents. For Thomas Mulcair and Bob Rae to capitalize on this hypocritical stance regarding omnibus legislation, they would need a competent communications strategy. Neither party can make such claim, and unless Harper decides to commit suicide, this hypocrisy will end up like the rest of his scandals and missteps: forgotten.

Bob Rae’s Leadership Goals

The conservatives, who have trumped all other federal parties in effective communications for the past 15 years, already banked on this happening months ago when they released a preemptive ad asking Canadians if Bob Rae can be trusted as Prime Minister. After all, he left Ontario with one of the largest deficits in its history and took a policy swipe at his own base while doing so.

A first school of thought, and one which seems to be the prevailing opinion in political circles, is as follows: a track record as rocky as Rae’s will not be able to escape the relentless negative branding by Harper’s conservatives and still emerge as a leader Canadians can trust. Conservatives are great at attack ads, and with Harper’s insatiable lust to ultimately destroy the Liberal Party, Canadians are about to witness a new age in negative advertisements. We are at the very beginning of a political era in Canada where parties will begin crucifying their opponents even when the next election is still years away. In fact, it would be a good bet to believe the conservatives already have a few ads in the queue, trickling them out every time a new opportunity materializes.

After the Liberal convention last January, when a staggering number of red faithfuls made their way to Ottawa to reignite their party, whispers already began to persist regarding Rae’s ambitions as leader. He is a solid speaker and made his mark that weekend, leaving skeptics wondering if he could effectively combat the attacks from Harper and the newly invigorated NDP. That momentum was squandered, however, as the Liberals decided to go into hiding instead of striking the hot iron the convention had provided.

But there may be a chess game quietly taking place at the Liberal executive these days. Most sources indicate the Liberals are universal in their confidence in Rae. This is probably more of a communications strategy than a reality as other insiders are concerned Rae is simply damaged goods. What is obvious is that Liberals need to become more savvy in their public relations, cementing themselves as the only moderate alternative to two opposite yet equally ideological counterparts. This goal of becoming a more effective party in the world of sound bites and ads is a steeper climb with Rae as leader. Rae will keep the Liberals on the defensive for the most part, constantly being badgered about his time as Ontario Premier. The conservatives are masters at getting the press to parrot their criticisms of other politicians (see Michael Ignatieff) and will leave little wiggle room for the Libs to navigate through.

Justin Trudeau’s Leadership Moxie

After the announcement of Rae’s leadership eligibility a media coup took place. On the day it was announced, polls began popping up showing Trudeau as the de facto favourite if he chose to run. His positives are higher, his negatives are lower. And as a sitting Member of Parliament, he is more popular than his 307 colleagues. In short, he is Canada’s only political celebrity.

And he acts like one too.

Trudeau has a lot going for him – his charm, his name recognition, his age – and he has a lot going against him – his charm, his name recognition and his age. Alberta and Saskatchewan, still bitter over the National Energy Program ushered in by Pierre Trudeau, point a finger at Justin as if he was pulling the levers of power for dear old dad. Justin was 9 years old when the NEP was enacted, but this is another example of the savvy, if not Mad Men inspired communications of Harper’s conservative party: brand your enemies so that when decades go by folks will only remember our version of who our enemies are.

It’s working. Ask any Albertan about Justin Trudeau and they will almost certainly begin with his father’s policies. Rae’s name is now synonymous with his 5 years as Ontario Premier (ending 17 years ago) and the tribulations that went along with his administration. Harper once again was able to frame his opponent into the most unflattering career snapshot available and get people to numbly agree.

But what if that worked the other way? What if Harper was asked to brand his own persona in the worst light possible? What would it look like?

If we were to begin in the present day political climate in Ottawa, with the Omnibus Bill being fillibustered in Parliament as we speak, the aforementioned quote would be the singular message coming out of conservative rank and filers.

Reporters would get tired of the repetition, but that’s how you know it is working. Harper has made a career out of his non-interaction with the media, so it seems like a great tactic when trying to brand him as a hypocrite. If the question is “How are opposition parties going to do anything other than stall this bill?” Opposition MPs should reply, “The Prime Minister himself is against omnibus legislation. He has questioned how constituents can feel represented when so much legislation is crammed into one bill. That’s the Prime Minister himself talking. He is either a hypocrite or against his own legislation.”

And so on.

But try as they may, opposition parties in Canada are impotent in cementing an idea for the public. They are also undisciplined. Without an effective voter relations strategy and the ability to stay on message, even when it feels wrong to do so, they simply cannot overcome the machine the conservatives have been building for decades. As it stands, Stephen Harper is the only politician in Canada who could destroy Stephen Harper. With that kind of reality, there’s no wonder he is getting cocky on his perch.