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Talking the Growing WE Scandal with Kristy Cameron

Yesterday I joined Kristy Cameron on CFRA’s “Ottawa Now” along with Katlyn Harrison & Lindsay Maskell on the “Political Heat” panel. We talked about the latest on the WE Scandal, the continued ethical issues for this government, the serious questions this case is raising, the big week of testimony ahead, and more. You can listen to the audio below starting at the 18:00 minute mark.

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Talking the WE Scandal on “The Arlene Bynon Show”

This morning I joined Arlene Bynon on “The Arlene Bynon Show” on Sirius XM’s Canada Talks 167, along with Alise Mills. We discussed the latest in the WE Scandal, should the Finance Minister and Prime Minister resign, the echoes of Adscam in this newest scandal, the corrosive effects of these kinds of situations on our democracy & how we voters share some of the responsibility for how some politicians act. You can listen to it all below.

Oh WE Oh My

2020 is a year that just keeps delivering or disappointing, depending on your point of view. We’re into the last week of July and in normal times things are quiet on our national political front. In normal times, it takes a lot for anything political to break through with the public consciousness because normally we’d be more worried about camping, heatwaves, barbeques, kids going off to camp or working a summer job to pay for the falls tuition.

Normally once MPs head home for the summer, Ottawa goes quiet and whatever chatter around political matters dies right down. It takes a lot for something to breath through with people at all, let alone in a big way. Now add a global pandemic on top of that and it should be that much harder to pull off. Yet 2020 has proved time and time again that it’s not a normal one, with the WE scandal being the latest manifestation of that. There has been a lot of discussion about what’s going on here, most of which has involved some over the top partisanship from Conservatives and Liberals alike.

Predictably some Conservatives are calling for the police as a kneejerk reaction while some Liberals are calling this all an opposition contrived nothing burger, saying that it’s all about hatred for the Prime Minister. In that sense, this been very normal for lots of Ottawa stories that don’t break through. But also at that same time both the blue and red teams are completely off the mark in this moment, which evidence both firm & anecdotal is proving. First with an interesting piece of evidence out this morning, in the form of a new poll from Angus Reid on this topic:

There is a lot of good information coming out of this poll, some of which should put the notions that this is nothing to bed. There were a few numbers in this poll that really jumped out at me as noteworthy. The first stat shows the level of engagement that those surveyed has had with this issue, and people are engaged. The WE Scandal came in with a score of 66 on their scale, which for context puts it right behind the SNC Lavalin Scandal, which scored a 67. Also for further context, Coronavirus comes in at 77. Add to those numbers the fact that this WE Scandal came in at that number in the dead of summer, compared to the SNC Scandal which happened right at the business time in the political calendar. That’s not a nothing burger folks.

The second number that jumped out in this poll revolves around how people perceive what happened here so far, which also should end the notion that this story is nothing. Of those surveyed, only 12% saw this as “a simple mistake” and nothing more. 43% said it was unethical but not criminal while 37% feel it’s possibly a criminal act that should be reviewed by the police. Although those two last groups differ on the matter of criminality, that’s still 80% of those respondents agreeing that something unethical happened here, which is the kind of consensus that you just don’t normally see.

The final number that jumped out at me here was the approval ratings for the Prime Minister, which are now firmly in the negative. Back in May the PM had a 54% approval rating and 44% disapproval, and in July, those numbers have now flipped with a 44% approval rating and a 54% disapproval rating. That’s a big swing to take place in two months and an amazing reversal, especially when you consider how this PM was getting good reviews for his response to COVID-19. Due to those reviews, last month the rumours were out there that the Liberals would go to an early election (which wasn’t going to happen). Now in the space of a month or two, there are rumours of the opposition looking to take down the government to force an early election (which also isn’t going to happen).

Now that same poll comes away with the conclusion that people aren’t changing their votes today on this, but this is where my anecdotal evidence comes into the conversation. I just spent the last month far outside the Ottawa bubble, back home in Northwestern Ontario. And without fail, about 75% of the people who I got into conversations with brought this scandal up. What’s more, unlike the SNC Lavalin Scandal, which was more difficult to get your heads around, the WE Scandal is very straightforward for people.

People get this not just because of the details themselves, but because of how they fit into the old stereotypes created by old Liberals scandals from the past. That’s connection with the past has been helped by the fact that the Liberal government today reacted with many of the same kinds of language and approaches. While with AdScam we were told about how the Liberals were trying to save the country and convince Quebeckers to stay, in the WE Scandal we were being told at the start that it was all okay because of the “jobs” that were being created for students. In both cases, we were told that this was all for the greater good, that the ends justified the means and that if you questioned that you were the problem here.

For all that’s happened in this case so far, this isn’t over yet. We don’t know if the police need to be called in yet and to call for them now (or earlier) is just over the top. At the same time, this isn’t a nothing burger and there is a lot of smoke here because there is a fire. That fire is not going out anytime soon, with big testimony coming this week at the Finance Committee. On Tuesday we’ll hear from the former Chair of the WE board, who told the Globe and Mail today that she resigned over ‘concerning developments’ at the organization. And right after her? We’ll have both of the Kielburger Brothers testifying, which means Tuesday will be an interesting day to watch house committees.

But after that, we’ll still have the Prime Minister himself, his chief of staff and others who will testify, each bringing new details to the public eye. As a result, the “drip, drip, drip” of this story will continue for weeks to come, each new drip bringing the potential to land serious blows against this government. And with each new blow that lands, it will get harder and harder to continue without some kind of real punishment for this government.

For me, that’s the part of this story that I’m watching because let’s face it; we’ve seen ministers resign for far less than what both the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister have admitted to on the public record. And for both of those people, these aren’t their first incidents that have required the Ethics Commissioner to investigate. At some point here there needs to be some consequence for this government, doesn’t there? So today the polls may say that people aren’t ready to vote the Liberals out on this, but they do show that people have noticed, they’re watching, and they see plenty wrong with what they’ve seen. Now it’s just a matter of if the next drips to come will push Canadians too far and will tip them towards giving this Liberal government the ultimate political consequence at the next election, whenever it comes. Until then we watch because this week promises to be a drippy one.

Talking the Latest on Phase 3 Re-Opening & the Growing WE Scandal with Kristy Cameron

Yesterday I joined Kristy Cameron on CFRA’s “Ottawa Now” along with Katlyn Harrison & Lindsay Maskell on the “Political Heat” panel. We talked about the latest on Phase 3 re-opening in Ontario, new cases of COVID-19 popping up, what to do about bars in the re-opening and the growing WE scandal. You can listen to the audio below starting at the 14:00 minute mark.

Somethings Gotta Give

Back on Monday Ontario announced it’s plans to move most of the province into Phase Three of re-opening, something that many people welcome despite the unknown that we face ahead of us. Included in this next phase will be the re-opening of bars, something that I have to admit has thrown me for a loop. That’s mostly because we’ve found ourselves in a position where Ontario has a plan to re-open bars before figuring out how to safely re-open schools. That sounds crazy when you think about it, yet at the same time so on brand for 2020.

That comparison hasn’t been lost on others, including folks in the media. That’s lead to more and more questions of the Ford Conservatives about how they are going to ensure that schools re-open safely in the Fall. And let’s be fair, so far their answers have been a mixture of confusing contradictions that have left many parents shaking their heads and quite concerned. Sensing that growing sense of anxiety out there, media has been asking more about this. That lead to comments from Premier Ford himself on Monday, which brought me as a parent to a bit of a breaking point:

In the span of a few weeks we’ve seen this Ford Conservative government go from “we’ll have one of three options and local school boards will decide how to proceed” to “I want students in school full time in the Fall, full stop.” Needless to say, both of these things can’t be true and really folks this doesn’t fill me with confidence in what these folks are doing.

When some boards announced that they will be starting the year with a hybrid model, it made sense when it came to trying to manage public health safety while working within the resources that boards had on hand. Having kids in school for alternating days would allow for the proper distancing and cleaning measures in schools, without needing to find too much extra space or hire extra staff. The big problem with that approach though was that it put huge burdens on parents when their kids are not at school and what it would do to their ability to work or return to work.

Adding further to that, we’re seeing public health officials speaking out talking about the mental health concerns for students if schools don’t return full time in the Fall, a totally legit concern and something that needs to be a part of this discussion. But if you want to have schools fully re-opened in the Fall, operating a normal five days a week under the measures needed to ensure the safety of kids and staff, you can’t possibly pull that off with the budgets that boards already have. To drive that point home, today the Toronto District School Board released some stats on what it would take to pull this off, and they shouldn’t come as a shock:

Toronto may have the biggest school board in the country and their numbers may be on the higher end of the scale, this shows the big problem Ontario faces if they try to do what Premier Ford and Education Minister Lecce are now demanding. TDSB estimates that it would cost $250 million this year alone to hire an extra 2,500 teachers to staff those smaller, distanced classes. And oh, they probably wouldn’t be able to deliver French classes too. That disclosure doesn’t include the extra cost of trying to find new classroom space to house those new classrooms, either inside existing school buildings, with new portables or other creative options. For a board like TDSB, it’s easy to see how ensuring that all kinds were in school five days a week could run nearly an extra $500 million a year. These are figures that boards can’t come up with on their own, meaning that the province would need to pony up the cash.

When you start to roll that same approach out across the province, you quickly get into the many billions of dollars in extra education spending, and that’s if you can find the staff to fill those positions. How would it look if Ontario suddenly had a shortage of tens of thousands of teachers from Manitoba to Quebec? Can you image the sudden competition to fill those teaching spots? Can you imagine the pressures on rural and Northern boards, trying to fill openings in places like Sioux Lookout, Kapuskasing and Madoc when teachers have tones of options in places like Toronto, Mississauga, London, Ottawa, or Windsor? Do you even have enough teachers out of work to fill those positions? And where to do put them, because how do you create thousands of new actual classrooms in time. And oh, to top it off, you’ve got a matter of weeks to make that all happen.

That is the clusterbleep of a situation to find ourselves in now, as it now feels like the Ford Conservatives have wasted months where they could have gotten ready for the decision they knew was coming. It was clear months ago that what happened in the Fall regarding schools was going to come down to a simple choice: either you re-open schools with the same resources in a modified schedule, or you re-open schools full time and pay the substantial costs to make that happen. There was never a third way where Ontario could re-open schools full time without having to spend billions to make it work. Yet instead of facing that reality early on and getting ready, the Ford Conservatives have waffled, waived, and wasted time, trying to have their cake and eat it too for as long as they could. Well that period is at an end and now it’s time to face this because frankly, somethings gotta give.

We are about five weeks from schools opening in some parts of Ontario and as much as boards and teachers are doing their best to be ready for the Fall, there is no way they are going to be ready to go at this point. That’s mostly because of the mixed signals coming from Queen’s Park and the unwillingness to face the cold hard facts about the money it will take to deliver what they now say they want. I’ve given this government slack on this matter for a while, mostly because it’s not an easy situation. But it was also because I assumed that they were having these conversations and making these decisions a couple of months ago, allowing for everyone to properly prepare. It’s now clear that benefit of the doubt on my part was misplaced and we’re staring a totally mess in the face. Something has to give here and it’s time for the Ford Conservatives to pick a lane and stick to it. Students, parents, and teachers deserve some clarity at this point because that’s the only way we can prepare for whatever less-than-ideal situation we’re going to be thrust into. That will only come with a decision by the Premier on what they will do. Will they pony up the money to allow full-time classes for all in the Fall, or will they stick with current budgets and have boards have to hybrid their way through it? There is no third way ahead and they owe Ontarians a decision.