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The Politics of Outsmarting Yourself

In my decade and a half in volunteering and working on political campaigns, I’ve been blessed to get to have many amazing experiences. Those experiences have taught me a lot and given me the chance to live out some childhood dreams and honestly, get to see things that a Métis kid from the bush of Northwestern Ontario probably was never supposed to.

For those chances, I have many people to thank, but right near the top of that list are people who took the time out to teach and mentor me over the years. Those people took the time to pass along the lessons of how to run campaigns, how do work in politics and how to do it all in an ethical and moral way. I owe those people much today, and it is with that in mind that I always jump at the chance to pass those lessons along. I’ve had the chance to train many campaigners myself over time, spending free time on my weekends passing along that knowledge and experience, passing it forward.

One of these lessons that I learned early on, one that I’ve passed along at many a session, comes down to a matter of ethics and how one campaigns. Inevitably during a session some eager volunteer asks about using some of the darker arts in politics; the topic comes up in various ways, with various ideas about how they could pull one over on the competition and they’d do it so well, so perfectly, that no one would ever know it. My answer to them every single time, without fail was always this; if you’re thinking about doing something like that, don’t. Just stop and use the time you’d waste on your scheme towards campaign activities that will actually help you win; make calls, knock on doors, enter data, etc. I never miss a chance to point out that as good as you think you are, as slick as you think your plan may be, you’ll always get caught. I saw that because that almost always turns out to the be the case. The only thing that is without fail is that the plan will eventually fail because you’ll get caught. A prime example of this advice is playing out in Alberta right now, right at the worst possible time for those who decided to dabble in these dark arts; weeks before a provincial election:

Yep, the CBC story here lays the whole case out very well; allegedly Jason Kenney convinced someone else to be a stalking horse candidate in the Alberta Conservative leadership race, one that he was widely considered to win by a wide margin. But instead of doing things above board and just going out and winning the race on his merits, it’s alleged that Team Kenney did the opposite:

The leaked cache of documents show Kenney’s campaign provided Callaway with resources including strategic political direction, media and debate talking points, speeches, videos, and attack advertisements, all aimed at undermining Kenney’s main political rival, Brian Jean.
 
The documents also show Matt Wolf, a senior Kenney campaign staffer and his current deputy chief of staff, communicated regularly with Callaway’s communications manager Cameron Davies, and also on occasion with Callaway’s campaign manager, Randy Kerr.
 
A document prepared by Davies for the office of Alberta’s election commissioner, with whom he is co-operating, alleges the Kenney campaign made a concerted effort to recruit a “stalking horse” candidate for the specific purpose of attacking Jean, the former Wildrose leader
 
The documents include several emails between Wolf, Davies, Kerr and sometimes Callaway. The emails reveal Wolf and the Kenney campaign were providing not just communications support, but also planned, regular strategic political direction throughout Callaway’s campaign.
 
In a telephone interview Saturday, Davies confirmed to CBC News the campaigns had even decided in advance when Callaway would quit the race.
 
Callaway’s withdrawal was something that wasn’t necessarily negotiable,” Davies said. “It was something that had been decided in a meeting in mid-July between Callaway and the Jason Kenney leadership team.”

Folks, that’s amazingly detailed stuff here, and extremely damning. Team Kenney gave them pretty much everything, basically set up the entire campaign for him, right down to the time when he’d bow out and back Kenney. They had it all laid out by date, planning themes and everything for him. This is extremely dirty stuff, especially for the candidate who was a hands-down favourite to win the race. This has all now lead to an RCMP investigation, which is a great illustration as to why you don’t take of the risk of such plans in the first place.

But if the brazenness of this plan wasn’t enough for you, the excuses given by the United Conservatives of Alberta to try to explain this away would be downright hilarious if they weren’t so weak.

An emailed statement from UCP executive director Janice Harrington simply repeated the claim made previously by Kenney that there was communication between his campaign and the Callaway campaign and this was “perfectly normal in a preferential ballot election and was within the rules of the 2017 UCP Leadership Election.”
 
Harrington also included a statement from another leadership contender, Doug Schweitzer, a lawyer, who said he and his campaign team “kept lines of communications open with all other registered, and prospective candidates in the UCP leadership race.
 
Ongoing dialogue across all campaigns is normal throughout leadership races within the same party, especially those with ranked ballots,” Schweitzer’s statement said.

When I read those quotes I had a really hearty laugh, because either they think the public are fools or they really don’t have a better excuse. I’ve worked three leadership campaigns run under preferential ballots, and I can say that yeah you keep talking to other campaigns. It’s true that somewhere down the line that in order to win you’ll need other candidate’s supporters to give you their 2nd place votes, so you don’t want to upset them by crapping on their preferred candidate too hard. But those open lines of communication are really just the basics of being polite to one another, being friendly. They don’t include giving the other campaigns resources like talking points, prepared speeches, videos and attack ads. Oh yeah, they also don’t involve giving another campaign a full-made message calendar or a pre-planned date for their backing out of the race. You don’t need to be a seasoned political expert to understand that.

What makes this story even more damning against Jason Kenney and his team are, as usually tends to be the case, his own words, recorded on tap. You see Kenney was asked about this rumoured scheme back in 2017, and guess what he had to say then?

Yeah, he denied it all, of course. So how can you deny there was nothing there on one hand, while on the other, a couple of years later, say that “hey, this is all normal stuff…. Campaigns talk all the time”? Yeah, you can’t do that, or at least not do it while retaining any credibility of any sort.

It remains to be seen what will come of the RCMP investigation into this and what effect it might have on the Alberta election this spring, but let this story serve as the lesson for everyone out there. No matter how well you scheme, no matter how good you think your plan it, you will get caught someday. That will likely come at the worst possible moment for you, and it will do far more damage than any benefit that you would have gotten by pulling it off. So instead of trying to re-create a scene from “House of Cards” in your campaign, stick to the things that will get you over the line; make calls, knock on doors and talk to voters. It’s not sexy stuff, but it’s what wins campaigns.

Using the Tools in the Toolbox

Back on Wednesday when the Liberal majority in the House of Commons Justice Committee shut down Opposition attempts to call Jody Wilson-Raybould back to testify for a second time, it seemed to be done in an attempt to try to shut this story down. Given how this scandal has hurt the government, it’s easy to understand why they might want to do that. But this story has grown well past the point of being able to be swept under any legislative rugs; there are too many unanswered questions, Wilson-Raybould hasn’t been able to tell her full story and the Liberals are not acting like an innocent party here.

But if the committee gets shut down, what more can the opposition parties do about it? What is at their disposal to try to bring attention to this or pressure the government to back down and change course? Well, it’s a times like these we turn to the procedural rules of the House of Commons and with the next Federal Budget getting tabled on Tuesday, that means there are opportunities to use those procedures to make a point. And let’s not forget that Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre left Wednesdays meeting with this hint of what might come:

Poilievre told CBC that if the Liberals use their majority to “shut down accountability,” the opposition will use every tool in the parliamentary toolkit to force the government to “end the coverup.”
 
“There are a lot of things that become very difficult in all of the committees of Parliament, and in the House of Commons itself, if the opposition is united in a singular focus to get to the truth,” he said. “I also think there will be enormous public pressure if Trudeau decides that he’s just going to cover this whole thing up.”

https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/justice-committee-wilson-raybould-trudeau-1.5052976

So, what might be the opening salvo in a procedural skirmish starting this coming week, budget week? Well it seems like it will involve a lot of standing and sitting:

196 votes, that’s going to make for a long day and into the night in Parliament. You see, procedurally, these votes must happen before the government is allowed to table the budget. By doing this now, depending on how the government and the speaker deals with it, it will drag things out longer, delaying government business for who knows how long. And that would seem to be the first tool to be pulled out. I wouldn’t be shocked if we saw a repeat of 2017, when the start of the Finance Ministers Budget speech was delayed by a half hour, with the full attention of the Canadian news media watching, by Opposition procedural tactics. But I guess time will tell.

But with the choices the government members made in the Justice Committee on Wednesday, this is a natural and appropriate reaction from the Opposition parties and a tactic that’s full in-bounds in my opinion. If the Liberals are going to try to skirt responsibility for the SNC/PMO Scandal, then the Opposition is duty bound to use the tools they have at their disposal. The Liberals only saving grace here is that thanks to years of the suppression of these procedural outlets the Opposition have had by previous governments, the tool box is fairly empty compared to how full it used to be.

Come Monday we’ll see how the government decides to respond to these tactics and whatever more comes in the weeks to come. Thanks to a quirk in the Parliamentary calendar, this week is a rare “One and Done”, as the House only sits for the week before taking another week off. We’ll see how much pressure the Opposition can put on the government for these five days and if it will need to continue into April and a third month of this scandal.

Christchurch

This morning I woke up and started my day with my usual Friday routine; I got cleaned up, got myself ready for work, took out the garbage and the recycling as I do on this day of the week. Having spent a couple of days wrapped up in my own things, I started this morning feeling less connected to things as I usually do.

But then before leaving the house, I saw the news coming from New Zealand on my Twitter feed. On the drive into work, I listened to news coverage of the events in Christchurch, taking in what had taken place. Then I got into my office and I saw a video that struck a chord with me; it felt like it had gotten in right.

Sometimes we say the best things by saying little at all, and there will be another day to talk about the politics of all this. But for now, I share this with you all, from Waleed Aly of Australia’s Network Ten show “The Project”. This says it all for me today, and speaks loudly on this tragic day. I know it will be in my thoughts as I pray for the 49 innocent people lost today in Christchurch.

Shut Down

This afternoon the House of Commons Justice Committee sat to reply to an emergency meeting request from the Opposition. The topic of the meeting was straight forward; calling Jody Wilson-Raybould back to the committee to testify. Given the fact that at the last meeting the Liberals shot down a motion to bring Wilson-Raybould back to testify again and how bad that looked, one wouldn’t have been surprised to see them jump at this chance at a re-do. So what happened? Well, see for yourself:

Honestly everyone, I’m partially surprised here yet partially not by this turn of events. The part of me that’s not surprised, who’s sat in a few emergency meetings like the one called today, didn’t see something I’ve never seen before. When I was in the Natural Resources committee back in September, the Conservatives and NDP called for a meeting like this to discuss the governments purchase of the Kinder-Morgan Pipeline. In that meeting, it played out very similarly to this meeting today; the Opposition got to move a motion, both parties got to speak to it and at the first chance they got, the Liberals took the floor to shut it all down. I’ve seen similar things in the Harper years too, although I don’t know if that’s the comparison the Liberals were aiming for. But on the rules and such, that’s not new.

But the part of me is very surprised by this move because of just how terrible this all looks. Seriously, they have now gone out of their way twice to stop Jody Wilson-Raybould from testifying again, and done so with no rationale or explanation whatsoever. This is just pouring more gasoline on this fire, the one that the government set upon itself. So today this motion offered them a chance to get it right this time, and they just shot it down. Do they really think this will make it all go away? What does she have to say about those few days that are so damning that the government is going to so much trouble to stop her from talking about them? Inquiring minds wants to know and now many Canadians are including amongst the inquiring.

Another part of this that is surprising to me is the Liberals throwing away opportunities to change the channel on this. Let’s face facts, the government is in a very bad spot right now. The best thing from their perspective about having this testimony before that committee is that they get most of the time to ask questions, to give their perspective, maybe turn this story around. The committee is a controlled environment where they have some measure of control over what might happen.

But when you deny Jody Wilson-Raybould the chance to speak there, you’re forcing her hand. They are putting her under increased pressure to speak and address all of this somehow. And by turning her away from the committee, a place where you have some measure of control, you’re pushing her towards other venues, where the government has no control and no input. You want an example of what that looks like? Remember this from October of 2013?

I still remember that day vividly, when Mike Duffy went into the Senate, took the floor and gave a speech in a full defence of himself, with the full protections of Parliamentary Privilege. He used that speech to set fire to the Harper Government, a government that was trying to hide from the Senate Spending Scandal and hope it would go away. How did that work out for that government? How would that look in the House of Commons, with TV cameras rolling, as she speaks uninterrupted and unrebutted, giving the full, unredacted version of her truth. By taking ham-fisted moves like the Liberals just pulled in the Justice Committee, that is the kind of scenario that they are setting themselves for.

With the Federal Budget being tabled on Tuesday, the Liberals had a chance today to help slow this story a bit. But now thanks to this, the Justice Committee will be meeting again on the same day, promising to draw away important attention and discussion from the budget that will be the frame of the Liberal election platform. Why do you do that to yourself? I have no idea, because it makes no sense. The Liberals are only going to get so many chances to correct course and turn this around, but after today, you can’t help but feel they’ve almost ran out of them. They just spoiled a good chance here to start in the right direction and that is their own doing.

Spring Rumours

One thing that is consistent about politics just about anywhere in the World at any level is the rumours; people love a good political rumour and in this digital age, they can come from anywhere. With the House of Commons Justice Committee coming back to meet today to talk about the PMO/SNC Scandal again, there have been lots of thoughts and rumours about what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might do to get out of the mess he finds himself in.

And let’s be clear, he and his government are in a mess right now, one that doesn’t seem to have a simple, quick or easy way out of it. That has led some to say that bigger, more drastic measures may be required here. Given that the Prime Ministers Principle Secretary, his closest confidant, already resigned to try to quell this story, there aren’t many heads big enough left to role to end this. At this point, all that remains are the Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick or the PM himself; anyone below those two won’t cut it.

So the options basically now come down to one of two basic principles of human survival: fight or flight. Given that the PM refuses to apologize and accept full responsibility for this whole episode, he seems to have closed the door on a third option. The flight option is straight forward: resignation. Some people astutely pointed out that a couple weeks ago we had the 35th anniversary of Pierre Trudeau’s famous “walk in the snow” that lead to his retirement from politics, saying that maybe it is time for Justin to follow those footsteps too. That’s one choice.

The other choice is to fight, something that the Prime Minister and his team have seemed to be very reluctant to do, for good reason. The publics sympathy has not been with the Prime Minister and has firmly been with Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott and Celina Caesar-Chavannes; any attempt to attack them has blown up in their faces, leading to a public apology to Wilson-Raybould from the PM for the anonymous attacks against her. And we’ve since seen the public response to attacks from people defending the PM, like Sheila Copps, which to be kind, haven’t helped the PMs cause.

So if the option is going to be a fight, the PM needs to find a venue for that fight that is to his advantage and that helps him get past this situation. What might that option be? Well Mike Cohen of “The Suburban” (which bills itself as Quebec’s largest English-language weekly newspaper) offers this juicy rumour to the table:

Of “fighting” options, calling a snap election would surely be one, but not one without risk. Remember Parliament has long since passed fixed date elections laws in the spirit of preventing exactly this kind of idea. On top of that, when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives decided to drop the writ a month early last time, leading to one of the longest election campaigns in Canadian history, the whole Opposition, including the Liberals, rightly attacked the move as cynical and unethical.

When you add the Liberals broken promise on electoral reform from that campaign, deciding to pull the fire alarm and call an early election to get out of this would come at a political cost that wouldn’t be insignificant. It would look at least as unethical as Harper, but probably more given everything that’s swirling around this. But maybe the calculus here is that there is no way out of this without any damage and that maybe going to the people for a mandate to save SNC jobs is the best of a bad set of choices.

All that being said, why am I even writing about this? There are all kinds of rumours floating around out there about so many things, so what makes this worthy of commentary or pointing out? Fair question, and honestly I would personally be surprised if the PM actually did pull the fire alarm after the budget like this. But there was a detail in Mr. Cohen’s piece that, as someone who’s worked more than a dozen campaigns in his lifetime, gave a few grains of proof to draw upon:

Several suppliers who are called upon by candidates in federal elections have told me they were contacted already to be prepared to start printing material soon for a May vote.

http://www.thesuburban.com/blogs/cohen_confidential_with_mike_cohen/trudeau-likely-to-call-early-may-federal-election/article_2fa27aae-452a-11e9-94a4-4f77d989d503.html

That’s interesting, if only it seems that the Liberals are gearing up but that by itself isn’t proof; many candidates are already out knocking on doors and getting ready for the Fall, so it’s not totally unheard of. But usual a campaign will produce materials more specific to the campaign the closer you get to it, so that’s why I perked up here a bit.

Also after seeing this, I started thinking of what outstanding shoes there are out there to drop, things that are supposed to happen before the next election. One big shoe that has to drop before a writ drop, by law, is calling a by-election in the British Columbia riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith left open by former NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson. She officially resigned on January 2nd, meaning that the PM must at least call that by-election before the writ drops for the fixed date of a Fall general election. So why the wait? Why hasn’t he called that race yet? There could very well be a legit reason for not doing so, but its an interesting curiosity hanging out there that could feed into rumours like the one out of Montreal. Could he not be calling it because he’s thinking of calling an early election that would make the by-election a mute point? Hmmm

Personally I still believe that it would be foolish to rush to an early election and that the damage that would cause to the Liberal brand would be large, undoing any advantage given by catching the Opposition off-guard and would feed into growing perceptions of cynicism that is giving more life to that very same Opposition. I don’t think the PM will pull the fire alarm here. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to speculate on rumours like these; they can be quite the thought excise as we ask ourselves “what if?”.