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Getting the Length Right

The last Federal Election that we had in 2015 was remarkable for many reasons and we saw many things that we hadn’t seen before that had an effect on the result of the campaign. But probably the biggest thing that affected the end result of the 42nd General Election was its length.

In an attempt to gain an advantage over their opposition and to allow them to spend more of the deep, deep war chest, the Harper Conservatives dropped the writ on that campaign on August 4th. That created a 78 day long election campaign, by far the longest Canadian election campaign since 1872. That 78 days topped the next closest modern campaign, which was 12 days shorter in 1979 when the Joe Clark government fell and Pierre Trudeau won re-election.

While the Conservatives got to spend a lot of money in that campaign (as did the other parties) all that extra time came back to bite them in the rear end. Thanks to the length of the campaign, that gave motivated progressives more time to get behind a single party, which turned out to be the Liberals. If there had been a normal 36-day campaign, the chances that the Liberals would have jumped from third to first would have been far lesser. Also the length of the campaign made it harder to keep important volunteers and campaign workers engaged and going, which left all parties in a harder position at the end.

In hindsight the 2015 election taught all parties a good lesson about the length of campaigns and why it’s important to take that into consideration. It was with that in mind that I noticed two stories come out this morning that touch on that very topic of campaign length and potential effects it may be having for the Fall:

These two stories point to two different issues, but all come back to the lessons from 2015. For the current Liberal government, it seems that they’ve learned from that experience and have decided to try to go with a shorter campaign, much closer to the legal minimum of 36-days. As the Hill Times piece points out, this gives less time for unpredictable moments to happen in the campaign and have an affect. That doesn’t mean that they won’t happen, but this is more about minimizing risk than eliminating it. This is the strategy of a front runner, which makes sense given the current circumstances.

But what also jumped out at me were the comments from former Conservative staffer Fred DeLorey, when he pointed out how long campaigns wear out campaign volunteers. That is true for all parties, but it’s interesting given the current circumstances. Remember Manitoba just went into a provincial election this week, with a vote on September 10th. That campaign was launched by Manitoba Conservative Leader Brian Pallister and in contravention of the spirit of Manitoba’s fixed date election laws, dropping the writ a full year before Manitobans were supposed to go to the polls.

The reasons for this were extremely flimsy and completely done for partisan advantage, but in doing so they’ve created a big headache for the Federal Conservatives in that province, who expect to make gains in the province. Conservative MP James Bezan is even quoted in the CBC piece talking about the problems and confusion this is causing him and the worries about volunteer fatigue. That’s an added complication that was brought on the Conservatives by their own provincial cousins, which surely doesn’t help.

They believe that motivation to vote out the Liberals will be enough to make up the difference but that’s far from guaranteed. History shows us that the fatigue issue is a real thing and thanks to this Manitoba election, citizens of that province are going to have 70 days of election action to deal with. So the threat of fatigue is real folks, and all because of an election called that shouldn’t have been.

After October 21st we’ll see how much of an effect the length of the campaign and fatigue will factor into the end result, but this is the point of the game we are at, where we weight and measure these concerns. Getting these small details right can be a boost to a party’s chance but as we saw in 2015 with the Conservatives, getting them wrong can have a big negative effect. Which will it be in 2019? It’s too soon to tell but we’ll surely have opinions on it after election day and we know the end result.

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Talking New Political Book, Debates and the Manitoba Election on CFRA

This afternoon I had the chance to talk with CFRA’s Rob on “News and Views” Strategy Session. Along with Melissa Lantsman, we talk about Aaron Wherry’s new book on Prime Minister Trudeau, the list of invitees to the Federal Leaders Debates (and who was left out) and the launch of the provincial election in Manitoba. You can listen to the audio below, starting right at the beginning. Enjoy!

Funding the Local Campaigns

It takes many things to have success in electoral campaigns but it’s a cold truth that money is an important thing to have to run successful electoral campaigns. When you look at the stats you can easily see a correlation between the amount of money spent by a campaign and their end result. The fact is that while you can run a good campaign without deep financial pockets (Lord knows I’ve done that more than a few times in NDP campaigns I’ve been involved with), the truth is that the more money you have that you have at your disposal, the more options you have to get your candidate elected. Usually candidates who spend the limit in Canada do well, and better than those who can’t.

That’s one of the reasons why we tend to look at fundraising figures to see how the various parties are doing, who’s up, who’s down and what the trends are. But that conversation tends to focus solely on the national central party fundraising figures, which in Canada means that we tend to miss a big part of the fundraising story. While national parties fundraise, so do their local riding associations all across the country. Each of those 338 organizations have the ability to raise money too and have their own limits. So if you’re a donor you can give the limit twice basically; once to the party and another time towards riding associations.

Over the past decade fundraising in Canadian politics has been dominated by the Conservatives, both on the national and riding levels. This has given the Conservatives a big advantage and has allowed them to paper over regional weaknesses. While their central party has ruled the fundraising roost, their riding associations ran up huge fundraising numbers, far more money than any one riding could spend in a single campaign.

One of the biggest examples of this was former Conservative MP Jason Kenney’s Calgary riding, which raised over $460,000 in 2016 alone, enough to legally run four fully-funded local campaigns. But in their riding, they had the practice of sharing that money with others. In 2015 they divvyied up nearly $300,000 amongst more than 60 Conservative hopefuls in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, plus an additional $150,000 to the central party. That is a massive boost to a lot of people. All that money was raised outside of the national party limit and many other Conservative riding associations did the same.

All told, between their national fundraising advantage and this advantage at the riding level, this has long given the Conservatives a huge fundraising edge, one that the other parties have been trying to match. It was in that in mind that I took notice of a new story out from the Canadian Press on this topic, and it seems that someone has finally really started to close that local funding gap:

Credit where credit is due, the Liberals have managed to take a major bite out of that riding advantage, raising over $21 million, just three million shy of the Conservatives. This is a big development as it really increases the Liberals resources on the ground and allows them to potentially do the same thing the Conservatives have done for years; sharing resources from rich riding associations to those who need help. Considering where the Liberals were in 2014, where they only had $8 million at the riding level, this is a huge jump up going into this campaign.

This news also could help to re-enforce the narrative out there of a two-way race between the Liberals and Conservatives, as both the NDP and Greens are far behind both on this metric. The fact that the NDP didn’t have a riding association in the Top 100 in 2018 isn’t a good thing for sure.

But that’s not the big story here in my eyes; the big news is that another party has managed to seriously close that gap with the Conservatives. It’s been a long time coming but finally someone has managed it. This news by itself won’t decide this race but it will go a long way to help ensure that the Liberals have the resources to go toe-to-toe with Conservatives in a place where no one has for a generation; funding across the board. We’ll see what effect it has in October but this is notable and surely is something to pay attention to.

The Debate Debate Lives On

For the past few elections an on going part of the discussion around the campaign itself has been about debates, and for good reason. While not all debates make a mark in our election campaigns, some campaigns have turned on very good or very bad debate performances. That’s one of the reasons why being on that stage is so important and why we seem to have endless debates about those debates in this country.

In the 2006, 2008 and 2011 campaigns, the debate revolved around if the Greens should take be taking part in the Federal Leaders Debates and if the rules around debate participation were fair. In 2015, with Elizabeth May being duly elected as a Green MP, that debate died for that campaign. But with the death of that debate, another was started when we saw more national leadership debates put on the agenda. In that campaign we had a grand total of five debates, with a different number of participants in each one. Only one debate had all five leaders, while two had only four and the other two only had three leaders invited, which created controversies all their own.

So going into 2019 some might thought that we might finally be out from under these debates about debates. With the creation of an independent commission for Leaders Debate, this whole process seemed to be made more independent and less prone to politics. It was with that history in mind that we heard some news from that group about invitations to the two leaders’ debates, and it seems to be news that will kick off another debate about debates:

Five parties have their invites but there is one out there sitting on the bubble, Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada. The fact that they are sitting on the bubble here is what will turn out to be the debate this time. When the new Federal Debate Commission was announced last year, here are the criteria for participation in said debate. To have a party leader take part, that party would need to meet two of the following three criteria:

  • At the time the general election in question is called, the party is represented in the House of Commons by a Member of Parliament who was elected as a member of that party;

  • The Debates Commissioner considers that the party intends to endorse candidates in at least 90% of electoral districts in the general election in question; and

  • The party’s candidates for the most recent general election received at that election at least four percent of the number of valid votes cast or, based on the recent political context, public opinion polls and previous general election results, the Debates Commissioner considers that candidates endorsed by the party have a legitimate chance to be elected in the general election in question;

That all seems very straight forward, right. But here is what CBC’s Aaron Wherry reported on Twitter the Commission is now saying about that criteria:

Spot the difference folks? It’s a big one. The PPC can’t meet the first criteria as a new party, but they should easily meet the second. So where does that leave us with the third and final one? Well this is where the language gets tricky and the goalpost seemed to have moved a bit. Last year the commission said that the party “have a legitimate chance to be elected in the general election” but now they are saying that they “not yet seen sufficient evidence to conclude that the People’s Party of Canada has a legitimate chance of electing more than one candidate in the next federal election.”

Where did this “more than one” come from? That seems like a very legitimate and honest question that needs to be answered because no where did the Commission indicate the need to win multiple seats before. It said “a legitimate chance to be elected” period, nothing about a number of seats. If there were the criteria put on Elizabeth May in the past she never would have gotten on the stage before 2015.

The fact remains that by all polls out there and the aggregators, the general consensus is that the PPC really only has a chance at winning Maxime Bernier’s seat in Beauce; nowhere else are they currently a factor to win outright. So this last-minute tweaking of these requirements seems to ensure that we’re going to be faced with a month plus of PPC’s supporters demanding that Max be allowed to participate in these debates, similar to what the Greens did in support of Elizabeth May in the past.

I for one don’t want to see Max Bernier be given a national TV platform to spew a lot of what he’s been saying elsewhere, but this tweak to this criterion just seems destined to give him more spotlight and attention. On top of that, at a time when there are already some people out there criticizing the very existence of this debates commission, this just opens up a large avenue to go at them. This is the political equivalent of tying a massive “kick me” sign on the back of this commission and sending out into the public square.

Personally I was tired of these debates about debates long ago and I was hoping that with the advent of this commission and some ground rules that we could get beyond this. Yet with this announcement today it seems that we’re up for another round of this tired old argument. I’m honestly left my head shaking wondering what the commission was thinking here and I hope that they clean up this mess fast because the last thing our democracy needs right now is another divisive debate about who gets to be in the bloody debates.

Fine Print of the Guarantee

Watching the Ford Conservative government in their first 14 months of has been something else. It hasn’t been the smoothest operation and Doug Ford himself has managed to put a lot of various objects into the spokes of his own wheels. It’s all left many people wondering who was really running the show and the entire Dean French scandal didn’t help that impression at all.

And let’s face it, there have been many stories and examples of cuts for people to latch onto, mostly because this government has moved very fast and seemingly left the Premier improvising later when faced with the blowback from the decision. One prime example of this cycle was their cuts to legal aid services. When faced with the blowback from that decision, Ford responded in a way that has come to be pretty typical for him:

Call me on my personal cellphone and I’ll fix it. He actually took that a step further saying that, saying “If anyone needs support on legal aid, feel free to call my office. I will guarantee you that you will have legal aid.” He guaranteed it folks, right there. That’s as clear cut a promise as you can get in politics and was pretty cut and dry. He didn’t leave himself any wiggle room on that one.

But just like when he promised during the last provincial election that not one job would be lost when his government started looking for efficiencies, it would turn out that the devil would be in the details. When people started to scratch beneath the surface of these promises, the truth about them started to show very easily. So it was probably just a matter of time before someone started to scratch at this legal aid guarantee, and once the scratching started it revealed a lot of truth:

First off, a big tip of the hat to Michael Spratt for deciding to look into this ad hoc promise from Doug Ford. It seemed ridiculous on it’s face when he made it, but still the promise was made so it made sense to see how many people would take him at his word. Using Ontario’s Freedom of Information legislation, Spratt found that no one who called up to take the Premier up on his promise got the help they needed. Not a one. Nada.

What they did get though was a bewildering variety of excuses. When taken up on this by one of his constituents, Ford said that legal aid was not his “area of responsibility”. Hmmm, funny answer for the leader of a government to give. He told another Ontarians who wrote him the same thing before forwarding the request to his Attorney General at the time, Caroline Mulroney, pass the mess he made onto her to deal with.

So after fobbing this all off on the Attorney General, what did her office have to say? Well her office said that they couldn’t help because Legal Aid Ontario operates “independently and without government interference.” Hmmm, that’s an odd response because if you took Premier Ford at his word, interfering with this independent department was precisely what he could do, or at least would do. Did he not know this before making this promise? I’ll leave that up to you to decide for yourself.

And then finally one individual, who was either an immigrant or a refugee, wrote Ford to take him up on this solemn promise of help. That message received messages of sympathy for this person’s situation, before suggesting that he reach out to the Federal Immigration Minister to ask for help. He even sent along all of his contact information.

All told, Spratt couldn’t find a case where anyone got a positive answer to Ontarians taking up Mr. Ford on his guarantee, not a one. That’s a pretty crumby result if you ask me, and really drives home a lot of people’s worst thoughts about this government. Furthermore, it really flies in the face of what the Ford brand, created by his brother Rob, has really stood for in the past. For all his faults, one thing that Rob Ford was really known for was getting back to people, taking their calls and getting action.

During his time at City Hall in Toronto, you’d keep hearing these stories about how he got all of these things fixed or taken care of when called upon. It’s what really endeared a lot of people to him and his Ford Nation caucus. But this case, along with other promises made by this Premier, run completely counter to that standard and legacy. It eats away at the base of what built Ford Nation and made it the force that it’s been over time.

But that can be what happens when people decide to do their homework and shine a light on the work of our elected governments. If they are staying true to their word, that promise gets re-affirmed. If they are doing the opposite, the mistruth gets exposed. Will this mistruth being exposed have a big effect on this government? Maybe, maybe not. But the more that citizens are out there shining their lights on these examples, the more likely that each individual case will have a bigger affect. And when you have so many examples out there to look into, that doesn’t bode well for a Premier that has had an issue with keeping his word so far.