Pandemic By-Election Shenanigans

With the Throne Speech coming next week there have been lots of rumours surrounding it. Not only are people speculating what will (or won’t) be in the speech itself, many others are wondering about if this will be a governing speech or more of a kick-off for a snap general election. The idea of a minority government triggering a general election in the middle of a global pandemic is one that strikes me as a terrible idea. I said as much when it came to the election that just happened in New Brunswick, I feel the same way about a rumoured snap election in British Columbia and the same goes for a Federal election right now.

It’s a bad, bad, bad idea that forces us to question the motives of a government that would roll the dice in such a dangerous moment. New Brunswick got lucky that no one got sick or worse because of the exposure risks from that election, but that doesn’t mean that others who try to pull the same trick will be as lucky. In the meantime, everyone is reading whatever tea leaves come out into the public domain and how that might affect an ultimate decision on if there will be a Fall general election or not. Well this afternoon an interesting shoe dropped that adds to all the speculation out there:

The timing of these by-election calls is very interesting on a few levels. Firstly, it should be noted that both of these seats have been open for less than a month and by law there didn’t need to be a by-election for another five months. That means that Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t have to call either of these by-elections until February 2021 at the latest. It’s not abnormal for a government to wait longer to run by-elections in empty seats, but it’s notable when a government decides to bring a by-election fast in the best of times. The idea that you would rush ahead with a by-election now, in the middle of a pandemic, when cases are starting to rise in Ontario, stands out just that much more.

So why call these by-elections early? It’s not like the government had candidates in place for a long time, itching to go. They appointed both of their candidates yesterday, in the process bypassing any chance for local Liberals in Toronto Centre and York Centre to make their choice about who would represent them in this race. It’s not like with two fewer MPs the government was at risk of falling because even in this minority government, the vote margin between a government standing or falling isn’t that small. Also if that were the case, that would also assume a result was assured for the government side. In Toronto Centre it’s pretty safe to say that the Liberal candidate and now former CTV hose Marcie Ien should win rather handily (more on Toronto Centre in a moment). But in York Centre things are less certain. In the Harper years the Conservatives did hold the seat after Ken Dryden held it for the Liberals. The red team won it back in 2015 but if the Conservatives are looking at possibly winning government whenever the next general election come, seats like York Centre would be very high on their target list. So a Liberal win there is far form a sure thing, which makes this decision all the more questionable.

When it comes to if there will be a general election, these by-election calls won’t change that situation at all. Under the rules, if a general election is triggered during a by-election, the by-election just gets rolled into it and they continue on to election day. We saw that in 2015 in Sudbury after former NDP MP Glenn Thibeault resigned to run for the Ontario Liberals. That by-election was called very late, and with the early election call in August of that year, it was rolled into that campaign.

So why do this now? What are the advantages for doing so? Well from my perspective, this all comes back to partisan advantage for the Liberals. Firstly, they have two solid candidates in both races, which gives you an advantage. Secondly, given that York Centre would be a Conservative target when it came up again, going so early after Erin O’Toole assumed the Conservative leadership would reduce their chance by simply eliminating the time they would have to get ready for that race. Going early helps to blunt what your opponents could do and with Toronto Centre being more of a certainty, going early feels more about trying to deny the Conservatives another GTA seat than anything else.

But in Toronto Centre there is also another reason to go early that may not matter in the grand scheme of things, but I don’t think is insignificant. The Greens are just wrapping up their leadership race, with the winner being announced at the beginning of October. It’s not clear who is really running in front in that race but given that none of the contestants are presently MPs, it would be natural to find a chance to try to get your new leader elected to the House earlier than later. Two of the front runners in that race are former Ontario Liberal MMP & Cabinet Minister Glen Murray and lawyer Annamie Paul, who has been the front runner among the candidates when it comes to fundraising. Toronto Centre is usually a Liberal/NDP race but if either Murray or Paul were to run, Toronto Centre would be very high on the list of ridings they would seek to run in. Murray was the MPP for Toronto Centre and Paul was the Green candidate in Toronto Centre in 2019, where she finished 4th with just over 7% of the vote.

Given the historical advantage that smaller parties have in by-elections by being able to marshal and focus their resources on a single riding, a new Green leader with real connections to the electorate in Toronto Centre could potentially make a sure win a much harder race. Back in the 2013 by-election in that riding, the NDP put a good scare into the Liberals by being able to focus their entire Toronto organization on the riding. In the by-election held in that riding previous to that in 2008 you saw a similar thing with the Greens, where they had their best percentage finish there with over 13% of the vote against Bob Rae. And all of that happened without a party leader running against the Liberals.

By going early like this, it likely blunts the chances for either Murray or Paul to run here. Given that the Greens themselves are fully focused on running their leadership race, they surely are unable to mount the resources to run that focused campaign that could put a scare into anyone if everything fell into place. But while that may be part of the calculus here, I believe that this is more about York Centre than Toronto Centre.

All of this is to say is that while these by-elections did eventually need to happen, they didn’t need to happen now. The only reason why they are happening now, like what happened in New Brunswick and what might soon happen in British Columbia, is because it’s to the partisan advantage of the government calling them. In the best of times that kind of partisan thinking bothers me, but these are far from the best of times. The idea of going to the polls, any polls, when you absolutely don’t have to in the middle of a pandemic is irresponsible in my view. Doing it because it’s to your partisan advantage is even worse. But what’s done is done, it’s happening. The writs have been drawn in those ridings and off the go. For the sake of this government, they just better hope and pray that they get as lucky as the folks in New Brunswick did. That very well might happen but eventually the luck runs out. I just hope that it’s not the people of Toronto Centre or York Centre that are left feeling the pain when that luck finally runs dry.

Warning Signs in Ontario’s COVID Response

This morning I woke up to a chill in the air, as we are under a frost warning. It was as sure a reminder as any that our warm summer is behind us and the Fall and Winter are coming around the corner fast. It also serves as a reminder of just how long we’ve been in this fight against COVID-19; it started at the end of winter and now as the summer ends, we’re starting to see COVID case numbers rise again. And we haven’t even hit flu season yet when we expect things to get that much worse.

Given that we’ve been in this for six months, we no longer have the excuse of lack of time to get certain things right. Yes no one government has had a perfect reaction to this pandemic, but still there is a difference between perfection and competent. The longer we go in this, we expect our governments to learn more and apply those lessons, improving their response. Yet in Ontario we’re honestly starting to see the opposite. Two different stories are driving home how the Ford Conservatives are falling down on the job right now, at probably the worst possible time. The first comes from Ottawa this morning and is as chilling as the cool morning air:

That is the Twitter account of my former colleague Kiavash Najafi and those tweets above are the start of a harrowing thread that I’m sure all parents cringe at seeing. In many communities across the province there has been a serious shortage of testing, just as more people are having to access it. In Ottawa, you’re seeing insane lines like that, with parents having to stand with children in line waiting all day in the cold just to get a test. Just a couple of days ago in Brockville, where I live, we saw this:

We’re seeing examples of this lack of testing popping up all around the province, as families are having to get tested because of symptoms that they are showing and the rules about accessing schools. In the board where my daughter goes to school, if she shows any symptoms, she must get a COVID test before being able to return to school or be in isolation for 14 days, showing no symptoms. Most boards have similar rules, which means that normal symptoms of illness require greater reactions.

To be clear, that makes sense because in these circumstances we can’t just assume it’s not COVID and move on. But in order for things to work, that means that the province needs to ensure that the necessary testing is not just in place, but that it’s accessible in a timely manner. You can’t cut that corner, yet as the Ford Conservatives have done in many things of lately when it’s come to the COVID response, they are trying to cut it. It’s not acceptable for parents to have to stand in lines all day long in the elements with their young children trying to get a test. It’s an imagine that’s more akin to a Soviet bread line, not the Canadian health care system that we cherish. And honestly, it’s access problems like that which will keep people from getting tested when they should. But that wasn’t the only piece of news around COVID in Ontario yesterday, as the Ford Conservatives announced changes to the rules around dealing with the disease that raised some honest questions:

Let me be clear off the hop here, this is not a bad announcement. The government should be taking steps like these as the case numbers rise and they should be getting harder on those who flaunt those regulations. You’ll find zero argument against that from me. But while this move in of itself is the right one, it’s also a half-measure that’s been typical of this Ford government when it comes to how they’ve dealt with COVID. While they are limiting the number of people who can be at indoor social gatherings in some areas to 10 people, they aren’t in others. While those rules apply to personal homes, they don’t apply to places like theatres, restaurants or banquet halls. Premier Ford warned that they will “throw the book at you” if you break those rules by having a barbecue in your back yard with a few too many people, but at the same time refuses to reduce the numbers of kids crammed into classrooms.

We’ve now got a situation where in certain parts of Ontario you’re being told you can’t have more than 10 people in your house, yet your kids can leave that home and be crammed into classrooms full of 30 kids without proper physical distancing. You know, those same classrooms where many of those kids standing in line waiting for COVID tests were just a day or two before. If I were to be kind about it, I would say that this makes no bloody sense. But honestly, I’m not feeling as charitable about it because the Ford Conservatives had six bloody months to sort a lot of this out and they simply didn’t. They knew that we would need lots of testing capacity, especially when schools re-opened or when flu season hit. This was coming, they knew it and have gotten caught with their pants down.

That’s not a matter of not being perfect; it’s a matter of not meeting an accepted standard of competence in governing. This is a failure on the behalf of the Ford Conservatives, one that they solely own. Healthcare is provincial jurisdiction and it’s been completely in the hands of this Conservative government to get all of this right. You can’t objectively say that they have succeeded when you see pictures like that in the capital city of a G7 nation. You can’t say you’re getting it right when you have an incoherent policy that says 11 people in your home is a danger yet 30 kids crammed into a small classroom is “safe”. In all of this I’ve never expected perfection from any government on this response, but the further we go along we rightfully expect our governments to perform better in their response, not worse. Yet somehow the Ford Conservatives have backslid here. Sure individual behaviours will go a long way to determining how we will deal with COVID and governments can only do so much to deal with that. But what governments can do is provide the proper resources and coherent public health advice to give individuals the tools they need to do right. On that score, the Ford Conservatives are failing right now.

I hope they take this chance to do the right thing and get this right, but if the Premier Ford’s reactions at Queen’s Park on this yesterday were any indication, he’d rather accuse others and cast invectives. The only hope we have left is that we’ll see a classic Ford backdown in the days to come because right now we need leadership and humility, not bluster and attacks. Doug Ford seemed to have understood that back in the Spring and maybe the return of the chilly air will remind him of the value of that approach he appeared to grasp at that time. One can hope.

Trademark Creativity

Time for a little confession on my part; I have a real soft spot for creative thinking when it comes to protest or making a point. Whether if I agree with what’s being protested or not, I can’t help but be fascinated by out of the box ideas to make a point or making creative use of the tools that one has at hand to make it. Not only can it be effective, it’s a truly resourceful approach that I can’t help but pay attention to.

Having worked on campaigns for the NDP in the past, I really came to appreciate this ability because of the lack of resources we sometimes had. Sure I got to be involved with many full resource campaigns where we had all the money we could legally spend on hand, but where you really learn how to run an effective campaign is when you have very little to work with. That’s where you learn to be creative, milk every ounce you can out of every penny and get a lot done with nothing. And sometimes, that involves taking creative steps to make a point, getting you much more attention than a big budget ad campaign ever could.

With all of that in mind, I came across a story today that not only speaks to this creativity but also speaks to a bit of rhetoric out there that has bothered me. New Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole won his new job running on the slogan of “Take Canada Back”, parroting a lot of Donald Trump’s language in the process. Of course the question this slogan always leaves is “taking it back from whom exactly?”, a question that never gets answered. It’s a slogan that plays on certain fears and surely doesn’t play to the best angels of our nature. So how to take on such inflammatory language and slogans? Well that’s where this story from the National Observer comes in with a creative approach that made me stand up and take notice:

Wow, I have to tip my hat to this group of youth who have decided to try this. It’s an idea that uses existing laws on the books and is so very simplistic in a sense; if you want to stop someone from using a slogan, trademark it to get ownership over it and stop them from using it. For me, this is beautiful on two levels. First, it’s a nice piece of legal jujitsu on the part of these youth, using the laws on the books and working them to their advantage.

But the second part is just as important, the fact that most campaigns don’t think to trademark their slogans. Just as how for the longest time many parties and candidates didn’t buy up all internet domain names to prevent spoof websites from going up, parties just don’t think to trademark slogans like these. It’s a blind spot that someone noticed and decided to exploit here. If they are successful in this attempt, it will not just stop the Conservatives from using that slogan without some kind of legal or financial consequences; that’s the nice short-term impact of this move if it works. It will also force parties to change their practices and actually go and trademark all of their slogans and such going forward.

It’s innovative and creative protests like these that force parties to continue to innovate going forward. The ultimate beauty of this story is that it will likely only work this effectively once. After pulling this off one time, it removes the element of surprise and smart party operations will take the necessary steps to ensure they don’t get caught with their trademarked pants down in the future. Sure it could work again if parties don’t do their work, but that would be completely their own faults.

So I’ll be watching this story going forward with interest to see if this creative gambit pays off for these youth. They thought outside the box and came up with a creative way to make their point while putting a potential dent in the rhetoric of a political adversary. I can’t help but tip my hat to that effort and we’ll see just how it turns out in the end. In the meantime, I’m sure that most Canadian political parties will be getting more familiar with trademark law as they now work to ensure they aren’t the next ones to find themselves subject to this tactic. Because if they aren’t, they’ll surely find themselves as being the next ones to face what the O’Toole Conservatives are facing now.

Head of State Debate

As a student of history, it’s always fascinated me how actions taken in the past still impact our present. Sometimes it’s the only way to make sense of certain things that are such large parts of our laws and governance. As a former part of the British Empire, Canadians know this feeling well, as so much of our law, legal and governance traditions are built upon British examples. In the end, they created them and imposed them here and in the time since many of them haven’t changed. That may seem silly to some, but it is what it is.

Given the size of the former British Empire, Canadians are far from being alone in having the experience of dealing with the fall out of having traditions and governance imposed upon its lands from Britain. It was once said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”, which tells you a lot about not only the vast territories it once oversaw, but the varied experiences each had with the Crown. And while Canada gained its independence from Britain much earlier than other part of that empire, we’ve seen many former British colonies gain their independence from the Crown all over the World.

From Asia, to Africa, to North American and to the Caribbean, these countries took their own paths towards independence and charted their own paths forward after getting it. And that’s not something that’s been static. In the decades since independence from the British Crown, many of these nations have questioned the governance structures they inherited and looked towards other models. But even as we’ve seen some of those natural evolutions, most haven’t taken the step to completely cut themselves off from the Crown and have kept the Queen has their head of state. Well yesterday some news came out of Barbados that struck like a thunderbolt on this topic, with a striking declaration during their Throne Speech:

I have to say, it’s quite something to see the representative of the Crown making a statement that basically says, “Goodbye Crown”. It’s an interesting argument that the government of Prime Minister Mia Mottley is making, or at least one that fits their specific circumstances. I’m as struck by the fact of the statement as the speed of this major move, promising that this major constitutional change to make Barbados into a republic will be done “in time for the country’s 55th anniversary of independence in November 2021.” A year to undo a major pillar of any countries governance? That’s either extremely ambitious or irresponsible, but in the end that’s part of being an independent country; to make these decisions and be held responsible for them. On that score, I believe it will be interesting to watch what happens there as very few former British colonies have taken the step to fully cut ties from the Crown. Stay tuned, I guess.

But for us here in Canada, this will be interesting to watch because there has always been a small, subset of people who have been either anti-monarchy/pro-republic or monarchist/anti-republic. On the scale of political issues we have in Canada, this issue is far, far down the list. The fact is that while some would be happy to see the Crown go in Canada, most Canadians could frankly care less. In the end, the Crown hasn’t meddled in our politics and beyond signing off on a bad Governor General choice or two, it’s a system that has worked. While we are a constitutional monarchy and the Queen is our Head of State, it’s hard to argue that we are effectively any less independent today than any republic with an elected head of state.

And if there is any reason for not changing the status quo in Canada, I would argue we do have a uniquely Canadian circumstance for not doing so; Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. The fact is that it’s the Crown with whom Indigenous Nations signed most treaties with, not the Government of Canada. The fact of that unique relationship and what it means to the legal structure of the country makes any decision to undo it that much more fraught. And of course that’s on top of the challenges that comes with making any constitutional changes in this country, which we know are very difficult.

So given that the current system is operating alright, the long standing relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown, and the difficulty of change with the pandoras boxes trying so would open, why exactly would any government want to take on doing away with the status quo? I think the answer to that question is pretty self-evident, which is exactly why it’s not on the political agenda in Canada. Do most Canadians have any great love for the current arrangement? I don’t think so. But do they feel the need to change it either? Nope, the answer is pretty clear there. For the majority of Canadians, it’s a historical fact that we inherited that hasn’t held us back in achieving our own independence. It’s a quirk in our system, one that maybe we wouldn’t have put in place if we were to do it all over again from scratch, but it’s not one that causes a problem.

That’s why I find yesterdays news from Barbados so interesting. As someone who has little knowledge of politics in that country, I find it interesting that they have arrived at a point to take it on. I don’t think it’s going to set off a wave of such actions, but it will be interesting to watch what happens there in the next year. Like anything else, the devil will be in the details and we’ll see if this becomes a change with minor consequences or if what comes out of pandoras box swamps everything else in the process.

The Morning After: New Brunswick Provincial Election

2020 has been a year for the books and has continually brought us things that we thought we’d never likely see. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis that stemmed from it and all of the fall out across the board, it’s been a year that has continued to keep us on our toes. It’s forced us all to do tough things, make hard decisions and face realities that we never thought we’d need to. And that’s just to do many of the normal day to day things that we really took for granted before this.

All of that was happening before we even started to think about how we’d take parts in other parts of our normal society, things that essentially revolved around human contact and being in enclosed spaces. In our democracy, elections are surely one of those things and prior to the last month we hadn’t seen what a general election would look like during COVID-19. There were a lot of unknowns, theories and assumptions that we had about what it might look like, be we really didn’t know because we hadn’t seen any of this in action in a very long time. So it was into that breach that New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs threw his province, shutting down a minority legislature that was working, all in the attempt to get a majority government, pandemic be damned. Last night we saw the results and here are my thoughts on them, by party in order of how they finished.

Progressive Conservatives: Well folks, it looks like Blaine Higgs gamble paid off as he got his majority. It’s not a massive one, as he only has a few seats above that line. But he got there, and in the end that’s what this was all about. Higgs didn’t win this by sweeping over the competition as he did relatively by default. This isn’t a wave of Higgs-mania running through the body politic of New Brunswick as it is a choice based on the least bad option. You can’t point to one policy or one debate that brought the PC’s across the finish line in first because really there wasn’t one. This PC win really comes down to two things. The first was having a more efficient vote in more parts of the province, which allowed them to take advantage of splits in enough ridings to get across the finish line. The second was the nature of this election, with so many voting early or by mail because of the pandemic. That meant that an inordinate number of people locked their votes in early, which greatly benefitted the PC’s. You could argue that if this had been a normal election in normal times, the result would have been much closer because far more people would have voted on Election Day and therefore could have changed their minds. In the end, they made the best of the circumstances and they’ve now got four years of uninterrupted government to prove themselves.

Liberals: Last night was surely not the result the Red Team wanted but it wasn’t very shocking. Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers had his chance to make his case to New Brunswickers and frankly, he didn’t succeed. He struggled through out the campaign and as much of a nice person that he’s agreed to be, his lack of natural political ability and sense showed through out the campaign. It came back to bite him many times and created odd situations. In a race where no one soared about the crowd, that lack of natural political ability rose to the top more than it might have otherwise. But it would be unfair to put this all down to Kevin Vickers because the numbers tell a worse story. Where the PC vote had decent efficiency in most of the province, the Liberals were highly inefficient. They ran up the score with their base in Northern New Brunswick, in some cases winning ridings with more than 10 times the vote. But in other areas like Fredericton, they ran a distant third or fourth, well behind the Greens and even behind the People’s Alliance in many ridings. So when you look at the provincial polling, it looked like they were the best other chance to win but when you looked at the regions, you could quickly see that was never going to happen. It’s one thing to lose a close race, but it’s something completely different to not even be in the race in large parts of the province. With Vickers resigning his leadership during media interviews last night after losing his attempt to win a seat, the next Liberal leader in the province will have a big rebuilding job on their hands. It will be interesting to see who decides they want to take on that task, but it took mere minutes last night for at least one Liberal MP from Saint John to give the impression he wanted that job. Stay tuned.

Greens: Last night was surely not the result the Greens wanted to see and was a night of mixed blessings. On the upside, they re-elected all of their sitting MLA’s and they will go back to the Legislature for a full four-year term. They also performed well in urban areas like Fredericton and Moncton, getting closer to winning a few more seats. But that’s where the good news ends for the Green team. They grew their vote, but not by much, merely a few percentage points and not close to the much higher poll numbers they showed during the campaign. You could chalk that up to the usual Green problem of “polling high, voting low” that we’ve seen time and again with Green parties across the country, but I would argue that this time it’s not as clear as that. While the PC’s benefitted from the early voting nature of this campaign, you could argue that hurt the Greens. With so many votes locked in early, you could argue that blunted any momentum they built up during the campaign itself, which is when we saw their poll numbers rise. That will be an interesting point of debate for a while to come. But the worst news of the night for the Greens was the fact that it was a majority government that was elected. That will blunt almost any impact David Coon and his team will be able to have in this legislature and eliminates all the levers they had at their disposal in a minority government. When this was pointed out to Coon during media interviews last night, he tried to spin it, saying that he had good personal relationships with cabinet ministers and that he could twist arms to get results. But I think that he’s about to learn the cold, hard facts of life in a majority government and he’s quickly going to realize that his position is worse off than it was just a couple of months ago.

People’s Alliance: If things were rough last night for the Green’s, they were worse for Kris Austin’s People’s Alliance. They lost a seat and were reduced to two, making them the fourth party in a majority government. That gives them fewer seats and less influence than they had before, period. In fact, you could argue that losses in the PA’s vote is likely what got the Higgs PC’s over the finish line and into majority territory. But for Austin and his team, it could have been much worse. They were seriously looking at the prospect of being wiped right off the electoral map last night. They avoided that fate and have lived to fight another day. Not only did Austin win, but their other win denied Kevin Vickers a seat in the legislature, likely hastening his resignation. It will be interesting to see how the PA operates in this environment and where they find space for themselves in the debate. But given everything that could have happened to them last night, the fact that they even get to have that discussion now is as good a sign as they could ask for.

NDP: Look everyone, this was a campaign where there were no expectations for the NDP. They weren’t going to win a seat, they weren’t going to be competitive and it was a bad situation. But it was still shocking to see the hard number staring you in the face at the end of the night. 1.65% of the vote is terrible, it just is, especially when you consider where they were at just two campaigns ago. Even by New Brunswick NDP standards, it is bad. Building in this province has never been easy for the NDP and never had been for third parties in general. Historically as New Democrats, you could chalk it up to just that. But the past couple of campaigns have changed all of that. The fact that you’re now going to have your third consecutive legislature with more than two parties, and your second in a row with four parties, means that things have changed. The fact that the NDP isn’t one of those other parties is something that cannot be ignored, wished away or overlooked. In a time of change, the NDP has missed the boat in New Brunswick and now sit firmly on the outside of the political debate. They are now the fifth party, and barely there. That brings me no joy or happiness to say, it’s just the honest assessment of where the Orange Team is in the province. Interim Leader Mackenzie Thomason was credited, and rightfully so, for making the best of the situation he was thrown into. I was impressed by his work and I believe he has a bright future ahead of him. But even that laudable effort on his part earned him only 100 votes and a fifth-place riding in his Fredericton area riding. In the cold light of day, that’s not good enough. Where the Orange team goes from here, it’s hard to say. I would argue the conversation they will have will be very different than in the past. The upside for them is that they now have four years to get to that work. We’ll see what they can make of it, but they clearly have the hardest job ahead of them of any other party in the province.