Text Me Maybe?

Having volunteered and worked on political campaigns for about 15 years now, one thing I’ve learned is that there are always new things to learn. Whether it be a new campaign technique, changes in the electoral laws or new technologies, things are always evolving in the pursuit of getting people out to vote for your candidates. The speed in which that evolution happens seems to get faster and faster, like with everything else in life. And as with everything else in life, the laws always seem to be a step behind. We’ve seen a great example of this playing out over the past few months, one that’s gotten a lot of people’s attention:

Yep, almost everyone has received this annoying texts, from an “anonymously” named “person”, either representing a party up front, or representing a group (which is discovered after some digging), asking us to answer a question or pushing their point of view. Amazingly with two cell phones (one personal and one work), I have somehow been blessed by avoiding those texts, but it seems that everyone around me, either at work or in my personal life, has received them.

Texting voters has become the new way of contacting voters to potentially identify support, collect data or simply to broadcast a message. In this day and age when fewer and fewer people have landlines and more people simply own a cell phone, it’s become harder for parties to reach voters than it was in the past. Running a phone bank is less fruitful when you have less people with actual landlines, and it’s only been recently that it’s been seen as more appropriate to call cell numbers. And when it comes to calling people, there are rules around it. Even with the development of technology, the existing rules have held up when it comes to calls.

But the same cannot be said for texting. Simply put, the rules around that technology simply don’t exist yet and so far, it’s a bit of a legal and ethical blind spot for election campaigns. And that doesn’t even go into how voters feel about the use of this technology for campaigns. Last month when people starting getting these anonymous texts from “Sue” asking about their thoughts on the carbon tax, we really started to see the unease and anger around the technique come to the surface. For many, it felt like a step too far and a bit of an invasion of privacy. Despite that blowback, the story above points to how the Conservatives are continuing on with the technology regardless.

With the advent of this technology and this technique, it does raise the interesting question about if this practice should be allowed and if so, how it is regulated? Do you ban the practice of being able to purchase cellphone numbers, as you can now? Do you include political parties in the “Do Not Call registry” and remove the exemption that they currently have? These are all legitimate questions to be asked and studied because I believe that in this day and age, something has to change.

I agree that parties have the right to be able to reach out to voters to try to earn their votes, but at the same time, I think there should be some rule change to allow people to stop being pestered by parties who they have already rejected. Back in the day when most voter contact happened by people at the door, by mail or by phone, the individual voter had much more control over the interaction. The odds of a canvasser coming to their door was small, so most didn’t worry about that. If you received a flyer or something in the mail, you could just get rid of it. And if you did get called when you were actually home, you could politely say “No Thank You” and hang up.

But today with cell phones glued to us going everywhere all the time, it’s harder to duck those calls and easier to get pestered by them. And when you add texting into the mix, it becomes all the harder for individual voters to control these interactions. The balance has surely shifted. So it would feel natural to me that a change in those rules should come, to bring that balance back and to give voters a way to opt out. And I believe most parties would actually welcome this to a degree, as it would help them identify voters who don’t want to speak with them.

None of this will happen before this election is over, but I hope that after it’s done our elected officials and Elections Canada will give some serious consideration to overhauling some of these rules to catch up to the technology and techniques available today. The health of our democracy depends on the rules that govern our elections staying up to date, and I understand that in this age of things moving quickly, that can be much harder. But that’s not an excuse to not get it done. That’s why it needs to get done, and it’s not an unrealistic expectation.


Silly Season Commences

Here we are on the 22nd of July, with many Canadians taking some downtime away from the fray. Some are spending time at home, others are visiting family and some are even travelling. With less than 100 days before the 43rd General Election in the fall, the political parties and their candidates are still getting ready. Despite the fact that many people aren’t paying attention to politics right at this moment, this is good time and normally is good weather to get to doors to talk to potentially supporters.

But with that ramping up for the fall campaign another phenomenon has arrived a bit earlier too; the silly season. Yes, this campaigns silly season has now officially arrived. For some, that was marked by the culture wars spreading to chocolate milk, but for me that was just one skirmish that didn’t indicate the full arrive of the silliest and least productive seasons of all. No, it wasn’t until this morning CBC Ottawa broke with a story that screams of peak “silliness” and of frustration to most voters:

Yes, we’re back onto 24 Sussex again and what to do with the crumbling official residence of the Prime Minister. And when I say back, I mean it because the state of disrepair of 24 Sussex has been an ongoing thing in our politics for a long time, but especially over the past two decades. That “debate” has given us precious moments like this one from Rick Mercer:

Remember that one folks, when Paul Martin took to putting clear plastic over the windows in the building to help stop its legendary draftiness? Yes, we all got a good chuckle out of that at the time, but that episode also points how bad things had gotten back then, and that was almost 15 years ago. The fact is that 24 Sussex continued to crumble and got to the point where Justin Trudeau never even moved in there because of the disrepair.

So when the Conservatives decided to take pot shots at the PM for the state of 24 Sussex, calling it a failure on his part, I couldn’t help but note just how much silliness had arrived. I have no problem with calling out this government on things they’ve actually done wrong or promises they have broken, and I’ve done it many times here. But to try to pin the state of this official residence on him is complete garbage, especially given that Stephen Harper himself lived there for the decade before and didn’t move an inch to stop the homes decay. It’s hypocritical at worst and plain silliness at best, but what it’s not is a legitimate complaint.

The fact is that going back now for a long time, both Liberal and Conservative governments have refused to keep that building up to date, an historic piece of our built heritage on a beautiful spot overlooking the Ottawa River. And the reason that has happened is completely political, the worst kind of political reasoning in my view. In the end, those governments have refused to do the work because they didn’t want to be seen as spending public money “on themselves”, despite the fact that 24 Sussex belongs to all of us as Canadians. As a result, the building has gotten worse and worse, which of course means it will be more expensive to fix, costing all of us more.

And let’s face it here, the “political” dilemma here is a real one; if Justin Trudeau had gone ahead with the fixing and retrofitting of 24 Sussex Drive, the Conservatives would still be attacking them, except they would be doing it for “making his home better” or “spending public money on himself”. They would ignore the fact that that home, for better or for worse, is a part of our built heritage and is a part of our history. It belongs to no prime minister or party, it belongs to all of us, and surely that merits ensuring that the bloody thing doesn’t crumble and fall into the Ottawa River below. But regardless they would still attack because this is a complete “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

So yes, the home should be saved, fixed and made an example of the best and greenest building technologies that we have today. Let’s make it a showcase of what can be done and a great example of Canadian know how. But the fact that saving a historically significant building is seen by all as a political loser with no political upside speaks to just how silly this whole debate is.

The fact that this silly season would eventually arrive was inevitable, it always happens in every campaign. But the fact that it’s come before July is even done can’t be a good sign for the debate to come. I’d like to think that this is just our parties getting this out of their systems early and that the campaign to come will be high-minded and such, but I’m not that naive. Yes, this promises to be a rough campaign and the early arrival of the silliness is surely a harbinger of that.

Unforced Error?

As the end of July gets closer, it can be said by any objective measure that this has been a relatively good month for the government Liberals. They are rebounding in the polls, with some putting them back in the lead, the Conservatives are on the slide thanks to the effect of the Ford Conservatives in Ontario, and the march of the Greens seems to have slowed, while the New Democrats have slowly started to rebound. They haven’t faced any serious scandals to add to the list and their cabinet ministers have been bouncing around the country re-announcing funds for this and that, reminding people of what they’ve done.

You can add to that the Scheer Conservatives trying to turn chocolate milk into a proxy for the culture wars and the continuing drips coming from the Ford Conservatives appointments scandal. With all that, things should feel pretty good for the Red Team. Given the position they were in months ago thanks to the SNC/PMO Scandal, they should be downright giddy right around now. Yet late yesterday some news broke about the Liberal campaign team that threatens to put a major monkey wrench into all of that, one that’s leaving me shaking my head:

A-freaking-mazing folks! Seriously, I have to put this one in the category of “This is why we can’t have nice things.” To bring back Gerry Butts at this point like this really does boggle my mind for a few reasons. Firstly, he is one of the major protagonists in the whole SNC/PMO Scandal and one of the few who left because of it. He is a walking, talking reminder of everything that happened in that story, the hubris that brought it about and is far from being a shining example of what this government would want people to remember about their record. After you’ve somehow weathered this storm of your own creation, it doesn’t make sense to bring back one of the prominent people who allegedly helped to set it off.

Secondly is the narrative of this story. Remember when Gerry Butts resigned and everyone spoke about the close relationship between him and the Prime Minister? Remember how some commented that Butts was really the mastermind behind the whole operation, the man behind the curtain pulling the strings? Remember how so many questioned if the Prime Minister could get by without Gerry? It could be argued, and I would agree, that their performance over the past few months has helped to quell those comments and put that narrative to bed.

These past few months haven’t been without their issues, yet despite that, the Liberals have bounced back and are now in a position to hold onto government in the fall election. Simply put, others have stepped up, filled in, taken up the slack left behind by Butts and they have done alright for themselves all things considered. They have shown that there was more to this PMO than Mr. Butts, and shown there is more talent in that team than many were giving them credit for. So then why bring him back at all? It seems like they were going to be able to get through this election without him involved, so why bring him back and effectively undo everything they had just done over the past few months? Having Mr. Butts come back now just brings all those narratives back to life in one swipe and surely that doesn’t help the Red Team going forward.

Finally, bringing Mr. Butts back on board makes him a target for the other parties to take aim at. Just as the Liberals are teeing off on the Greens for hiring Warren Kinsella and have gone after the Conservatives for a long time for hiring Hamish Marshall, Rebel connections and all, the other parties are now going to be able to tee off on the Liberals, on Gerry and talk about the SNC/PMO scandal again. What exactly does that do to help the Liberal cause going forward? How does inserting that into this conversation help them to control the narrative and run this campaign on the terms that they want to? I’ll be damned if I know because from my vantage point, bringing Mr. Butts back into this campaign, in any capacity, just opens the Liberals up to all of the above, putting at serious risk of undoing everything they’ve just spent months trying to turn around.

For me, this screams of bad hubris from the Prime Minister, who surely had to sign off on this move. The Liberals aren’t lacking for experienced and talented campaign officials so this isn’t a matter of “Gerry or nothing.” This is a conscious choice they are making here, bringing back a figure who carries a lot of risk with his involvement yet doesn’t seem to bring anything extra back to the table that they couldn’t get elsewhere. The only intangible here is the fact that Butts is the Prime Ministers close friend, and if that is what was the determining factor, then this might prove to be a terrible mistake. We’ll see how this all turns out in the end but in my opinion, this is a move that they didn’t need to make, one that poses serious potential downside risk with little potential upside.

The Importance of Candidate Vetting: PPC Edition

The 43rd general election coming in the Fall is one that has promised to be very different from most elections we’ve seen in Canada for a while now. In the past few campaigns, we’ve seen some big shifts and falls, from the rise of the NDP, to the decimation of the Bloc Quebecois, to the second to third to first moment of the Liberals.

While this campaign period is starting to show similar possibilities, with the rise of the Greens, we have another big wild card in this race; Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada. Yes, the PPC has been around now for about 10 months and in that period of time they have organized their way to riding associations in most Canadian ridings and are nominating candidates at a serious pace. While the PPC hasn’t polled to the point where they are winning seats or even threatening to, they are nipping at the Conservatives heals on the right and have the potential to eat into their vote, possibly costing them seats and government.

But the other wildcard part of the PPC has been the people they seem to be attracting, the controversy that’s bringing and the fact that they will be on every ballot in the country. As we’ve spoken about here about the importance of a proper candidate vet, the PPC has seemed to not care one bit about vetting. And that folks, has some serious consequences, as we are seeing today in two stories. The first comes from Transcona, and a series of resignations:

This story is quite remarkable, not just for the scale of the resignations but because what they are saying are their reasons. They say the party is being taken over by racists and conspiracy theorists, by people with bigoted views and that it seems that Maxime Bernier doesn’t seem to be trying to stop it. In fact, they state in their resignation letter that this seems to be “encouraged with a wink and a nod now.” For these people, including the individual who was going to be their candidate, they didn’t to suffer personal damage for all of this, stating that they quit over “justifiable fear of a tainted reputation.” Wow, that’s damning stuff, I don’t care what your political views are.

For those who have been following the birth of the PPC, this isn’t completely surprising, but most people haven’t been following this for very good reasons. Bernier’s Party has been earning itself a reputation from stories like these, to the point where you can’t really say these are one-offs. In fact, it was only minutes after seeing that story I came across another one about a newly-nominated PPC candidate, just nominated yesterday in fact. If people are wondering how people are getting this impression of the PPC, it’s time to meet the PPC candidate for Thunder Bay-Superior North:

Yep folks, those are deleted Instagram posts from a PPC candidate, hash tagging white supremacists words in a post about getting a DNA test. Are they a joke? Well we don’t know because the candidate, Youssef Khanjari, hasn’t responded to questions from the local media, which is ironic because at his nomination meeting the two days before he claimed to the same journalist that the media was being told not to talk to the PPC. Let that sink in for a moment.

But folks, if he actually comes out and says it was a joke that wouldn’t matter because you don’t joke about things like that, ever. That’s true if you are a candidate for political office and that’s also true for you if you are flipping burgers at McDonald’s. It’s never okay to make racist jokes, period. But given that at his nomination meeting an unnamed party member made an offensive racist joke about First Nations, maybe we shouldn’t be shocked here about, what I can most politely call, a serious lack of judgement.

And this story out of Thunder Bay is not the only such story out there. We’ve seen others come out about questionable PPC candidates, social media posts from them and more. Normally one would call for this candidate to resign, but this is the PPC and I would be stunned if this is what forced one of their candidates out, as it would in just about any other party. One can’t help but assume that this kind of behaviour is not a bug within the PPC, but a feature of it.

In 2019 I think we’d like to believe that these kinds of things shouldn’t be happening. We’d like to believe we are beyond this crap. But after watching what’s played out in the United States over the past week, topped off by last nights Trump rally chants, it’s pretty clear that we’re not. Seeing any party leader, even one leading a party at 3% in the polls, not try to stamp this kind of behaviour out is not just disappointing, it’s extremely dangerous. We can’t close our eyes and expect this to just go away. As the resignations in Winnipeg showed us, the vast majority of people have a point where their morals will not allow them to support this. Shining a light on these stories helps, and sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Off The Hook

As the Summer of 2019 continues, it’s been interesting to watch the political news. Being a normal quiet period, normally that means having very little of note take place. But it wouldn’t be 2019 if this summer managed to follow that norm. Oh no, not at all. With that in mind, there have been a couple pieces of news come from Queen’s Park that have been quite interesting for me to note, starting with a new poll released by the Toronto Star yesterday:

The headline number in this poll is amazingly striking, especially for a government only into the 14th month of it’s term; 67% of respondents disagree with the statement “Doug Ford cares about people like me.” Only a hearty, hardcore group of Ford Nation supporters, totally 19% in this poll, agreed with that very blunt statement. The same poll went onto state that 63% of respondents agree that “the Ford government has given jobs to too many of the Premier’s cronies”, which is an equally damning figure. It also speaks to the mindset of the electorate to a degree; it wasn’t saying that people think that Ford shouldn’t give any jobs to friends and such, it was just saying it was too many. It was saying that people had a very low bar for the expectations of this government, to the point where the public would accept “some cronies” to be appointed. But somehow they managed to even blow under that low expectation, which is astonishing.

It’s news like that, along with people’s general anger about many of the Ford Conservatives cuts and policy changes, that seems to have been likely to have lead to this newest development, one that speaks volumes too:

Oh yes, remember how Premier Ford gave out his personal cell number to everyone under the sun, saying that if they had a problem to call him and he’d fix it? That has lead to some crazy stories, but regardless of the stories, it was an approach that seemed to be doomed to fail. And with the explanation that “special interest groups” were to blame for the cancellation of said cell phone, it seems that this all ended in a pretty predictable way.

Given his current popularity and all the scandals and issues that his government has faced, it feels safe to assume that the vast majority of those calls he received were not positive. And if you are to believe the many media stories out there, this is not a Premier who deals with that kind of news too well. So it makes sense that eventually that line would go dead.

But the big tell here about what is really going on here was the excuse line, laying blame at the feet of “special interest groups”. Not only is that old time, Conservative language, it also speaks to the attitude of this government. When students were protesting the changes to sex education classes, Ford blamed teacher’s unions, who had nothing to do with their organization. When Ford has taken shots at other public sector workers, he has blamed unions again. When the party was fighting back against criticism of their cuts, the went after “special interest groups”.

Of course, all of those people go by other titles too; taxpayers, parents, Ontarians and voters. They are what you also might think of as “the people”. When the Conservatives drop the “special interest group” language, it’s a backhanded attempt to demean and devalue those who are speaking out, as if they are to be discounted and their opinions are somehow less valuable. Of course, in this case that simply hasn’t worked because of the widespread nature of the feelings towards this government, their approaches, their policies and their scandals. You don’t get to those kinds of poll numbers when it’s truly only a small group of people who are upset. The Premier seems to be feeling the pressure, so away goes the direct line to the Premier and gets replaced with a system that will filter and vet the concerns he actually sees.

To be fair, the whole idea of giving out the personal cell number of anyone elected at the level was always absurd; it’s not because people should be able to have access to their leaders, but it’s because that is far from the best way of doing it. As someone whose worked in the offices of MPs, there were always many good reasons we never just gave out the MPs cell number willy nilly. But the biggest reason was to be able to give the best services to constituents, period.

When the Premier did give out that number, it came off as very disingenuous to me. It was unsustainable, not the best way for the leader of the second largest government in this country to operate and given the personality of the person with the phone, was doomed to end right where it did. So that being said, you could argue that the first story has nothing to do with the second. But I would argue that the two stories are very much connected because if the Premier was popular and getting all kinds of calls with lavishing praise, that line would still be connected to this day.

We are only in the middle of July and there is a lot of summer still out in front of us. What was meant to be a quiet summer at Queen’s Park has been anything but, and the stories keep coming. Something tells me that will continue for a while still, and that fewer Ontarians will be getting replies to their calls and concerns.