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What You Need to Know – Quebec and NAFTA 2.0

The newest episode of “What You Need to Know” is recorded and now up. In this episode Alyson Fair, Geoff Turner and I talk about the federal election results in Quebec, the provinces importance in the upcoming Parliament, what will come of NAFTA 2.0 (if anything) and we look ahead to the meetings next week between the Prime Minister and the Opposition party leaders. You can download and subscribe to “What You Need to Know” everywhere you can get your finest podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Spotify. You can also listen below. Enjoy!


Time for Reflection

We live in an interesting time, and not always for the best reasons. Let’s face it, 2019 has been a crazy year and 2020 doesn’t promise to be much better. We live in a time where we’re not seeing the best of us as humane people on a regular basis and let’s face it, things are getting very tense. I won’t deny it, the tone and mood of the discourse in our country right now is something that has been weighing on my mind a fair bit lately. It’s not been good at all, and it does make me wonder where it will all lead.

That feeling has been confirmed for me lately with a couple things I saw in the news over the past week. The first story comes from home, one that should make a lot of people stand up and notice:

Now for most Canadians who watch our politics, I doubt that this story is shocking to them. We know that in this age of social media we’ve seen more and more vitriol and down right ignorance thrown at our elected officials. And in that we’ve seen women and people from minority groups get the worst of it. Having worked on the Hill for a decade, I saw a lot of it and it sadly became a part of the daily work. To an extent I was lucky to be in a Parliament Hill office because you were not easily accessible to people off the street. I always felt worse for my colleagues working in constituency offices because they were easily accessible to the public and would get people coming in off the street with awful things thrown at them, verbally and otherwise.

We all had the panic buttons installed under our desks, which I have to admit at the time I didn’t think much of. But by the time I left the Hill, I was grateful to have it there. I saw the emails and heard the voicemail messages left for my various bosses. I saw the threats, the racist comments, the ignorance and down right vitriol. I forwarded enough of them to the authorities over my years to be familiar with the process, a process I don’t think that anyone should ever become familiar with.

And despite all that, I know I had it better than many because I knew that others in our caucus and other parties had it far worse. So when I read that story from the CBC, part of me was glad that this is being seen by the public because they really should see this. But another part of me wondered how much worse things might get before it changes. And that made me think back to a piece I heard on CNN last week as I was making my daily drive into the city, something that I think we should all heed:

The second half of that “reality check” is something that we should really pay attention to. While that may be from the United States and we can say that we are in a better position as a country than that, I think we’ve all seen too many examples of late about how our world is much smaller than it used to be when it comes to these matters. With all of the issues that we are facing as a country and the rise of tensions that we’ve seen during and after the Federal election, I think we can easily see how the sentiments that are raised in that video can be seen in Canada, if they aren’t already. We all can easily picture moments and people who have expressed similar sentiments about those who they disagree with politically, so it’s not that big a leap to make.

We should take that video, the stats they raise and the sentiments we’re seeing just to our South with some serious reflection, and that comes from all sides of the political spectrum. We all need to take a deep breath, take a step back and try to find ways to not only lower the temperature on our political discourse but also try to find solutions that help to move us forward, together. People are angry out there right now and the solution to the problems creating that anger is not more anger.

We need our political leaders to take their collective feet off the accelerator and try to calm things. Frankly, we need them to start to be the adults in the room, can the insults, slurs, attacks and actually come to the table with some practical ideas to move us forward. Being in a minority government, you’d think that should be easier to accomplish in this moment but I’m still waiting to see any indications from various leaders that they can do this. They need to recognize the seriousness of the moment which we find ourselves in and act accordingly. Rhetoric isn’t going to get this done.

Simply put, our leaders need to lead and set the example. We’ll see what they do as they meet with the Prime Minister over the next week and what comes in the days afterwards. Personally I want to be hopeful that they will rise to the occasion and will realize the seriousness of this moment. 2019 has been rough and we’ll have a much better idea of how 2020 will go after we see how our leaders act over the next few weeks.

The Shifting Red Chamber

As we start to go into our new reality of minority government in Canada, there are many things that many observers need to pay attention to in order to stay on top of things. That’s standard operating procedure in minority governments and has been ever seen Confederation, but this time there is a big difference sitting out there that we have never encountered before. That difference is the new “Independent Senate”, a direction that the Liberals sent us in during the last Parliament.

In the last Parliament we started to get a taste of what can happen with the Red Chamber, tweaked by those changes. We saw a Senate that didn’t operate as it did in the past, for better or worse (and sometimes both at the same time). During this past election the future of the Senate was an open question, because the result of the campaign would have a big effect on it. A Liberal win would ensure this experiment continued while a Conservative win would have meant a return to the old ways, starting to undo what the Liberals had done. So with the Liberals winning a minority in October, the answer to the future of the Senate, or at least the immediate future, was answered. But now that we know that path, we are starting to see other things happen, which is bringing whole new wrinkles into things:

Well, well, well, we have another “official party” in the Senate. With the creation of the “Canadian Senate Group”, we now have another formation of Senators in this independent Senate. For the moment, that makes four “official parties” in the Senate, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. More immediately with the creation of the CSG, we now have another variable in the Red Chamber that could make governing more difficult. While the creation of the CSG is a sign of a further entrenching of the Senate reforms we saw in the last Parliament, it’s also partially a repudiation of those reforms. The majority of the CSG members either joined directly from or were past members of the Conservative caucus, reducing the Conservatives formal representation in the Senate and entrenching these independent reforms. In a sense, the formation of this group is a tacit acceptance of those reforms, giving the impression that they are here to stay.

But while only three of their members were appointed by Mr. Trudeau and his Independent process, their decision to join this new formation seems to be partially based on their concerns with how the new Independent Senate has operated. In that way, it’s a repudiation of what has been done with the Senate so far. Sen. Diane Griffin was quoted stating to the CBC that “the ISG (Independent Senate Group) is a very large group, which can be counter-productive in terms of being nimble”, while Sen. Elaine McCoy stated that “a smaller contingent will allow for more focused discussions on legislative matters.” Sen. McCoy also pointed out that the CSG’s membership will be capped at 25 to “ensure a less cumbersome operation.” Well see if they stick to that provision or if it will be increased over time, but that arbitrary number seems like one that is not going to hold over time.

Given the composition of the CSG, it is a group that seems to be small c-conservative in their political bent and unlike the Independent Senate Group, members of the CSG are not forced to renounce membership in any political party, another repudiation of how reforms had been rolled out. CSG senators will also be “free to take positions and vote on legislation independently of personal political affiliations and each other”, which will make it interesting to see how this group holds together over time.

The immediate effect of the CSG will be in the operation of the Senate itself. They now become the third largest group in the Senate and the fourth official party in the Red Chamber. That will give the group a research budget and staff to support their work. That will also mean that both the Conservatives and ISG will see a reduction in both of those resources. Going forward there is potential for more members of other Senate groups to join the CSG and to further change that balance in the House of Commons.

Another event that could have an effect on the makeup of the Senate will be the impending retirement of Sen. Joseph A. Day, the Leader of the Senate Liberals. When Mr. Day retires, the Liberals will fall to 8 Senators and will lose their official party status, which will mark an historic moment in Canada. At that point, more resources will be available to the other groups in the Senate, but it is also possible that the remaining Liberal Senators will decide to join other groups, further changing their composition. It could make for an interesting time, to see where everyone ends up if they move.

The general election gave us a lot of things to look forward to but with a lot of things to watch out for. The dynamic of this new Senate is a new one for us to deal with, as this is a whole new situation for us to look at. The next six months promises to be a fluid time in the Senate, will go a long way to telling Canadians how this institution will operate going forward and how this minority government will be able to govern.

Green Fade

Now that we have entered into November and with a couple of weeks before the Liberals name their new cabinet, the parties are starting to put the pieces back together. They are looking ahead at the next Parliament and asking a lot of questions about their own performances, their future directions and of course, leadership. There has been a lot of talk about leadership, potential changes and what could happen on that front. Well today we finally saw the first shoe drop on the leadership front, one that will be interesting to watch:

Green leader Elizabeth May has decided to step down as the leader of her party, ending the longest leadership tenure of any party in the House of Commons. As I mentioned on Election Day, the future of her leadership was one of the things I was watching for and honestly, her resignation is less of a surprise to me and more of what seems very natural. Being the leader of any party for over a decade is tough on anyone, let alone when you spent almost all of that time as a party of one. So having reached her mid sixties and recently having gotten married, it felt like unless some big breakthrough came that she would take a step back.

Taking that step back became all the easier when you saw their results during this campaign and that major break through failing to materialize. There was serious talk about the Greens getting into double-digit seats, sweeping Vancouver Island and maybe even getting official party status. In the end, they only added one seat, getting their first outside of BC in New Brunswick. And given all of the scandals and candidate problem they had in this campaign, it became clear how much of a disappointment their campaign became.

And really when you watched Ms. May in the last few weeks of this campaign, you got the feeling that this was someone having their last run. In what they said and how they acted, that was an impression that came across to me for sure, one that we’ve seen before in other leaders in their last campaigns. Also, when you add the strange post-campaign “campaign” to become Speaker, complete with her boasting about being the “least partisan MP” (something that you’d never think you’d hear the actual least partisan MP ever say), it was clear she wanted to move on.

Now for the Greens they will move into a leadership campaign sometime in 2020 and it will be interesting to see what it brings. There are no natural successors for Ms. May because, lets face it, this has been the Elizabeth May Party as much as the Green Party during her leadership. Sure there are now other elected Greens in Ottawa and in some provincial capitals, but are any of them ready or able to not only take on this leadership role, but to even match the attention or ability that Ms. May showed? That is a seriously open question, one that if I were to answer it today I’d say “No”. There are not really any names of note who you would expect to take a run at this leadership, so that feels like a safe answer right now.

But there is a potential wild card in this story that could make things interesting; none other than the Independent MP from Vancouver-Granville, Jody Wilson-Raybould. The connections between the Greens and the former Liberal cabinet minister have been there for these many months and we know that Ms. May offered to give her the leadership if she wanted it. In the end we all know what decision she made, staying Independent and getting re-elected that way. Will she have a change of mind on that score now? That will be something that will be interesting to watch because right now she would seem to be the only thing close to a name of note that could take on this position.

Over the next couple of months, I would expect that we’ll hear more and more speculation about who will try to become the next Green leader but for this party, they are truly at a crossroads. What will they look like going ahead, what direction will they go in and will this be the high point in their history? There are a lot of open questions but by making one big decision today, Elizabeth May has put her party on a path to answer them.

Strategic Considerations

With the 43rd General Election now a week in our collective rear view mirrors, many people are doing a lot of thinking about what happened during the campaign and what the results all mean. It’s part of our nature to pick through the entrails of the results, look over the numbers and assign meaning to it all. It’s not that this isn’t a valid exercise, as there is some value in looking back at what happened, but it’s an interesting exercise none the less.

For yours truly I have been looking at various different things to come from the campaign, found in those entrails. I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears open to see what people are saying and writing, taking it all in and seeing how it all adds up. But one piece that really caught my attention came out yesterday from the Canadian Press, which told us something that probably didn’t come as a shock to most but still said a lot:

Yep, according to a new poll from Leger 35% of people voted strategically last week, with a large number basically waiting until the end to see where the winds were blowing to see how they would cast their vote. There have been other pollsters who have found similar findings when it comes to the strategic voting piece, and given our history, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. For better or worse, the concept of strategic voting has become more and more engrained in our voting behaviours.

But why did this piece in particular jump out at me this time? Well, part of it comes back to the different circumstances of this campaign in particular. This was the first campaign in our history where Millennials made up the largest voting block in the country, which promised to potentially make a change in what happened. Instead of Boomers being that biggest block, as they had been for a very long time, it was the youngest group of voters among us who now had that role. In this campaign, one of the open questions of this campaign was “What would Millennials do with their vote?”, a question that had a lot riding on it. So when I saw that Leger result, I thought right away about a number I saw from a Research Co. poll that came out just a couple days before on the same topic, except breaking the result down by age bracket. That result was as illuminating and gave part of the answer to that open question:

43% of voters ages 18-34 polled by Research Co. say they voted strategically. The group with the least experience in the process, and therefore we would assume the least experience in dealing with the arguments of strategic voting, turned out to be the biggest practitioners of the practice itself. Surprisingly it was the older cohort who were the least likely to vote strategically, picking the perceived lesser of two evils when casting their ballot.

That number does fly in the face of the assumptions of many who put the idea out there that Millennials would be less likely to vote strategically and more likely to vote for their wants and desires. That number also is a validation of the Liberals campaign strategy in this race, as many of those strategic voters would have broken late for the Red Team.

These are sobering numbers that should make a lot of politicos think about how to approach their campaigns going forward for a few reasons. Firstly, this should put to rest the idea that strategic voting is going anywhere for a long time as a feature of our politics. We can bemoan the practice and its effects on our elections, but people are voting with their votes when it comes to the practice itself. That means that parties need to figure out better strategies of overcoming that barrier going forward.

Secondly, this figure also goes to show that while campaign matters, so does the period running up to a campaign and general readiness for them. The number from that Leger study that should ring in the ears of New Democrats for the months to come was that “46% of respondents who ultimately voted Liberal said they considered voting for the NDP during the campaign.” Think about that folks; almost have of those who ended up voting Red seriously considered voting Orange instead. You could look at that as a sign of a great campaign, which is a totally legit way of seeing it. But you can also see that what was lost by not being better prepared for this campaign; all of those people were prepared to vote NDP and they didn’t in the end because they thought the Liberals were better positioned to win. That is a lost opportunity for the Orange Team, one that should stick in the minds of New Democrats in this minority Parliament coming up as they prepare for the next campaign.

Finally, some will look at these numbers and automatically jumped on the Electoral Reform horse, saying that we need that now more than ever. While I believe Electoral Reform would be a good thing for this country, I would suggest that this problem around strategic voting will not be solved by changing out voting system. This is more of a behavioural issue now than a structural one. And while the current structure has contributed to this behaviour, I don’t think changing that structure will undo it. Even in a PR system, strategic voting behaviours can take place, so that by itself is not a panacea.

The “solution” to strategic voting is illusive but, in my mind, it comes back to the case you make to voters. The solution to this situation is political, and it comes back to convincing Canadians that another approach is better. I know that’s hard, but I would argue it’s not impossible, as another approach is just a behaviour, just as strategic voting is. I look at these results as a challenge to the various parties out there to step up their game and offer better to voters. The question is “Will the parties take this as such?” We will see going forward.