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The Wrong Hill

Last night stories were making the rounds about NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, his by-election run and the pressures on him to with, along with the potential consequences of a loss. The story wasn’t new, as these rumblings have been bouncing around the Ottawa bubble for a while, but it again put a point on the challenges and issues that Singh is currently facing. Another story also came out yesterday regarding his leadership, specifically his removal of MP Erin Weir from the NDP caucus and the attempts of the NDP riding association in Regina-Lewvan to let Weir seek their nomination for the 2019 election.

Singh and the party have been clear that Weir will not be allowed to run under the NDP banner, and under the party’s rules, he has the power to stop Weir in his tracks. Some in the media have taken the case of Weir and added it to the pile of Singh’s mistakes and missteps as NDP Leader, but I must say that in this case, the media has it wrong. Jagmeet has made mistakes as leader and on policy has done things that I and many New Democrats disagree with, but turfing Erin Weir was far from being one of those.

Singh’s decision to remove Weir from the caucus was not just the right decision, it was one that was made easier and more justified by Weir’s own actions. Let’s remember what happened here; accusations were made about Weir’s behaviour, an investigation took place upholding one of those accusations, and Weir apologized for his actions.

Now if that was the end of the story, he might have a case. But of course, that’s not where it ended. At the same time he was apologizing, Weir went to the media to make accusations of conspiracy, that the accusations were payback from the party’s leadership for speaking out on policy differences. He continued to go to the media not denying what happened, but then point a finger of conspiratorial blame towards others. In the age of #metoo, there is no way that an “apology” that would ever pass muster, let alone from a politician. I would point out that even in the pre-#metoo world, that “apology” followed by attacking those who he was supposedly apologizing to would not be acceptable.

To top all of that off, some party members and former elected officials from Saskatchewan have taken to Weir’s defence. That defence included a letter from dozens of former elected New Democrats from the province, putting their clout behind the Regina MP. While doing media in support of that letter and Weir, former NDP Finance Minister Pat Atkinson even took a broadside shot at the then-President of the NDP staff union (a young woman of impeccable progressive credentials). You see the President of UFCW 232 wrote a letter of support for Singh’s actions, stating that allowing Weir back in the caucus “would put staff at risk and would violate their rights under the collective agreement to a safe, healthy and harassment-free workplace.” In one of the most unfortunate and disappointing things I’ve ever seen come from a respected elder in the party, Atkinson pointed to the presidents’ job, which happened to be a caucus press secretary, trying to intimate that somehow she wasn’t really representing her members and that her words were somehow to be viewed as suspect. Conspiracy, conspiracy everywhere folks!!! I still hope that if she hadn’t done so already that Atkinson would give that former staffer an apology because being the president of a union local of political staffers is beyond thankless. I speak from first hand experience when I say that she was a great union leader when she led our local.

All of this led us to this week, where the NDP riding association in Regina-Lewvan voted to let Weir seek the nomination there. Constitutionally and under the rules of the party, the answer here is very simple; the leader has to sign off on a candidate and he can say no to someone running. That was the case under Layton and Mulcair, and many potential candidates have gotten that red light. That’s true for all major parties, not just the NDP.

The riding association has said that the only chance the NDP has to hold the riding is to have Weir as the candidate, and honestly, it’s that claim that drew me into writing this piece. I’m surprised and rather disappointed that so many New Democrats that I have huge respect for and have looked up to for decades have decided to make this their hill to die on. There are many good reasons to be critical of the leadership of Jagmeet Singh to date, from the state of the party to some policy decisions that have put into doubt the party’s traditional support for western and northern resource sectors. I stand with my brothers and sisters in Saskatchewan on those issues all day long. But in the case of Erin Weir, Singh got it right. The NDP is more than likely to lose Regina-Lewvan, and maybe their other two seats in Saskatchewan too, and there are many reasons for that. But none of those have to do with Erin Weir. Putting Erin Weir’s name on a ballot does not fix those or change those reasons at all. There are dozens of good reasons why the NDP stands to do poorly in the federal election in Saskatchewan, and none of those are improved or even mitigated by having Erin Weir as a part of the team.

And folks that is the key thing here; I had the feeling from the start that there was a serious desire by the leadership to give Weir a chance to do the right thing at the beginning. I don’t believe there was this race to toss him and I don’t believe there was this huge desire to get rid of him at the start. But how does any leader in this day and age seriously keep someone who “apologizes” for their actions, who then in the very next breathe attacks the people who he is apologizing to while yelling “conspiracy”? If that was a Conservative or a Liberal MP who tried to do that, my NDP friends would be calling for their heads, and rightfully so. By acting the way he did, Weir made his apology look and feel insincere and by crying conspiracy in the media, he showed that he couldn’t be trusted by others in the caucus. That all falls back on Weir’s shoulders and he has no one else to blame for that but himself.

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The First Drip

As I wrote about last week, one of the first big events of this Federal election season is just around the corner: The Federal Budget. And with all big events like these that happen on Parliament Hill, there are certain traditions that come along with it. The Finance Minister buys a new pair of shoes (that usually fits with whatever theme is being spoken to in that budget) and the announcement has to wait until after the stock markets close at 4 pm. There is the usual fun time to be had in the lock up then followed by the mad dash to leave it and spill the beans as soon as the Minister takes to his feet to give the budget speech. It’s a lot of theatre, even by the high standards of Parliament, but it’s also all part of the event.

Another tradition (or at least one that’s developed over time) is the annual guessing and pontificating about what will be in that budget, usually set off by “leaks” the come out beforehand. Some of these leaks turn out to be true, others not so much. Sometimes the leaks seem like an attempt to set the scene for the big day itself, but others seem more like trial balloons set out to see how everyone reacts.

Well today I guess we officially started that pontificating and wondering as we seemed to have our first budget leak of this election season. It came courtesy of Reuters, and honestly, it’s a bit of a doozy.


Canada’s Liberal government will propose a limited expansion to the country’s universal healthcare system in the spring budget to cover part of the cost of prescription drugs, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

https://ca.reuters.com/article/topNews/idCAKCN1PP2TL-OCATP

This first leak is a fascinating to me for many reasons. For starters, last year the Liberals appointed former Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins to study a potential pharma care plan, so this is not totally out the blue. Further to that, it’s starting to sound like a plan that would land in the middle, where this party likes to place itself. Its not a full pharma care plan like the NDP would run on, but more than nothing, which is what we’d expect the Conservatives to offer on this front. If it’s true, it’s a cunning approach.

The part that I find most interesting is that this proposal already seems to be taking a different direction then Dr. Hoskins took when the Wynne Liberals brought in pharma care for everyone under 25 in Ontario. It seems to be a “part of the cost for everyone” approach, as opposed to a “all the cost for some” approach previously done in Ontario. That might be a way to defend itself from some attacks from the Conservatives for being too ambitious and costly, while also being able to say to the NDP they’re starting down the path and be patient.

But of the parties I see this policy being more aimed at, it’s surely the NDP. The Orange Team has put a lot stock early in the leadership of Jagmeet Singh into a national pharma care program as a signature policy, picking up the flame to finish what Tommy Douglas started decades ago. Naming Dr. Hoskins to this advisory role already took some wind out of those sails. In an election which promises to be heated and more polarizing than recent campaigns, this might be enough to attract those traditionally NDP voters who have wanted to see some version of this policy for decades. In theory, it could have the same effect that the Liberals promises on electoral reform had in the 2015 election.

Of course all of that is predicated on one big question: Will the Trudeau Liberals keep this promise? Like the example of electoral reform, many of those who were big on that issue feel burned by the end results of that promise. Does that make for a cautionary tale for those who have pushed for pharma care? Well that’s why what comes out in the budget will be so important. A budget is not a platform document; a budget is concrete and real, it’s happening and it’s a document of action that spends money to make things happen. Putting actual concrete steps on this idea in this platform would take the concept from the realm of promises to action, even if it’s early on. So what the government puts in that budget on pharma care will make all the difference. If they put real, concrete proposals with real money in this fiscal year towards it, that puts the NDP in a box on this issue. If the government decides not to do that, it will leave itself exposed to legitimate question of just how real this promise is.

So we’ll keep watching for more drips coming out before the budget and what other proposals and ideas leak out before the big day. They will tell us a lot about what the election debate will look like and tell us a lot about what ground the Liberals want to try to fight this campaign on. It promises to be interesting, or at least as interesting as Minister Morneau’s new shoes.

The Long Goodbye

Having had the chance to work in politics, you get to know some politicians very well. You also get to see that anyone can serve as a politician, as there are so many different ways to be one. You have some that love to focus on debate, others that are policy geeks, some that love to simply serve their constituents back home sight unseen and others that love to bask in the glow of the bright lights. The point being that there is a space where all MPs can shine, can find their way and a part of the job they love.

But even when finding that spot (which not all MPs find honestly), it can be a hard life. You have the very long hours, the travel from long distances, the stress that can come from the attention and of course the stress that it can create for families. Steve Paikin wrote a very good book on this very topic a while back, and for all the adulation that can come from being elected, there can be a big downside for many.

It’s for that reason, having lived and worked in that environment for close to a decade, when I hear that an MP has decided to step away for family reasons or because they’re ready to go, I take that at face value. Sure, we could speculate all day long about the “real reason” behind their decision but I have found that most of the time when that reason is cited, it’s for real. And normally after that person steps away from political life and you see them again outside the Ottawa bubble in their private lives, they seem much happier and relaxed. In short, it validates and further proves that they meant it when they walked away.

Sometimes though it’s hard to say what is going on, and a great example of this poked it’s head up today in the House of Commons by doing something very simple and rare for this person; showing up for work. Liberal MP Nicola Di Iorio (Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel) rose in the House of Commons shortly after 10 am today as the Chamber came to order to make a point of order. This act by itself would not normally make anyone bat an eye except for a simple fact; he told everyone he was going to resign before now.

You see it all started back in April, 2018, when Mr. Di Iorio announced that he would be resigning, sighting family reasons. He said that he had achieved what he wanted in politics and was ready to leave. He even got a nice farewell tweet from the PM. It was expected that he would resign over the summer. All normal and above board, no problem so far.

But then the summer came and went and there was no resignation. In September he puts out a statement on Facebook saying that he’s reconsidering. Then House of Commons returned in mid-September and people started to notice that Mr. Di Iorio hadn’t return himself. This went on until November and people started to wonder “what is going on here?”. Liberal MPs were getting asked in the press if they knew what was going on, to which most said they had no idea. One MP is even quoted in the media saying “I thought he had quit”. Didn’t we all think that, didn’t we all.

Then news breaks from the CBC that Mr. Di Iorio has issues with the Liberal nomination process and wants to have influence on who his successor might be. For someone who’s walking away, you have to wonder why. But in the same interview he gave us another nugget; he told CBC what he had been up to. He told us the Prime Minister had given him a special task, to work on the issue of road safety. Finally, this story seemed to reach its end when shortly later he announced that he would resign his seat effect January 22, 2019 (ensuring no by-election could be held to replace him by the way). So after all that bad press and worse optics for the government, this seemed to headed to it’s conclusion.

Then a funny thing happened, or should I say, didn’t happen. January 22nd came and went without a resignation from Mr. Di Iorio. More days went by and people started to rightly ask “what’s going on?” again, and new life was breathed into this story. Then this morning came, and Mr. Di Iorio rose to spoke. At first, many were surprised to see him there. Many thought that surely, this was now the time that he was going to resign, giving what would make his second “final speech” to the House has he stepped away. But to assume the normal here would be obviously not understand Mr. Di Iorio’s pattern of conduct as an MP.

He rose in the Chamber to go after the New Democrats and specifically MP Nathan Cullen for daring to point all of this history I’ve laid about above. He said that the NDP was simply trying to “tarnish his reputation” and that he deserved credit for supposedly being the first MP to drive an electric car. But of all the eye-rolling comments he made in his rambling statement (which the Speaker had to interrupt to keep him “on topic”) there was one thing he didn’t say: I resign. After all of that, he still hasn’t resigned.

At this point you really have to wonder what is going on here with Mr. Di Iorio, because this has moved far outside the normal resignation that we’ve seen over time. If his reasons were as simple as the normal and respected ones I mentioned at the start, this pattern of behaviour doesn’t match that. In fact, the more that he says on this topic that doesn’t revolve around an actual resignation just raises more questions. Worse it looks bad, not just on Mr. Di Iorio himself, but on his party. I can’t help but feel sympathy for those Liberal backbenchers who are doing good work because right now Mr. Di Iorio is making himself into an essay attack ad from an opposition party and a talking point that they will have to defend their party against.

If Mr. Di Iorio was being honest and upfront with his party, his constituents and Canadians when he announced back in April that he was going to resign, then he owes it to everyone to finally take a final decision. Thankfully this afternoon that decision finally came with his actual resignation, announced by the Speaker of the House of Commons. This had gone on far too long and for him to have continued to do what he had been doing for months would have been an insult to the public. The fact is that people will now continue to ask questions and question his sincerity in this regard, and that’s not the work of any other MP or party. That’s all his own doing, and by letting this drag on so long, he’s just added more and more tarnish to his own name.

Episode 2 of the Magpie Brûlé Podcast is now Live

With the return of the House of Commons coming tomorrow, I’m happy to say that Episode 2 of the Magpie Brûlé podcast is now up and live. In this episode, I discuss the return of the House of Commons this week, I have an in-depth take on the weeks events regarding the NDP and I look ahead to probably the most important by-election we’ve seen in a long time in Canadian politics. You can listen it to the episode here or you can now download it on iTunes, just search for “Magpie Brûlé”.

Budgeting for the Fall

Next week the House of Commons will return for the final five months of sitting before this fall’s election. As MPs come back to take their seats they will be coming back to some big changes, none smaller than where those seats themselves will be. MPs will be starting to use the new “temporary” chamber located in the West Block, where our elected members will be debating and voting for the next decade at least while the Centre Block is being renovated.

As for the Senate, they will be enjoying their new space in the former Government Conference Centre (aka the former Ottawa Train Station) and taking a big step into the present at the same time. As soon as all the bugs are worked out, the proceedings taking place Red Chamber will now be televised. Forty-two years after Canadians from coast to coast to coast were able to watch the action taking place in the House of Commons, we will finally be able to do the same with the Senate.

Given the events that have happened since they last convened before the Holidays, it will be very interesting to follow the happenings that will take place under the new glass dome of the Commons. There are story lines for all the parties in the House as we enter the session, but what will be most interesting to follow is a certain big event that will come in the first half of this session. That event is the presentation of the Federal Budget.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau will table his budget at some point this spring, a budget that will lay the groundwork for not only what the Liberals plan to run on but will set the baseline for what the opposition parties will eventually put on the table. This budget will offer the government a big chance to set the direction they will go in 2019, whether if it’s a change of course or doubling-down on the path they’ve already set.

One piece of information that came out in the news today does offer an interesting potential wrinkle into what might happen. It came out today that the federal government only ran a $2.2 billion deficit in November, which is down from a $9.5 billion deficit that they ran in the same month last year. That’s an interesting turn of events given that Minister Morneau’s most recent fall update projected that this year’s deficit was going to be bigger than the last.

Being $7.3 billion ahead of your deficit number compared to the same time last year is an interesting place to find yourself in, especially in an election year. You do have to wonder how they got to this point but today its hard to say exactly what. But it if this trend continues, it could make the last budget before the 2019 election more interesting.

This offers the Liberals opportunities and some flexibility to maneuver either left or right, depending on where they want to go. Which way will they go? Will they use that extra capacity to increase spending in areas of interest, or take on a new policy initiative that will undercut a proposal or idea from the NDP to their left? Could that be money for the start of a pharma care program, for more child care spaces, to create more affordable housing, for more transit or for rural broadband? It could be any or all of those to some degree and would undercut the NDP’s chances of competing in the Fall in the process.

Or will they use that extra capacity to simply reduce the deficit, and undercut the Conservative attacks on the government for their years of deficit spending? Getting ahead of reducing the deficit and getting closer to budget balance could help to reinforce the Liberals economic credentials with Red Tory/Blue Liberal swing voters, while also helping to undercut the Conservative argument that the Liberals have no intention of ever balancing a budget again. They could take more space on the centre/centre-right of the spectrum and either undercut part of the Conservative message or force them further to the right.

Or will they use that space to do a bit of both? Invest a bit more here, lower the deficit a bit more there, and speak to all sides of the spectrum. That could be a way to hedge their bets but also could be a good approach given the relative strength or weakness of the opposition parties when. If Maxime Berner is eating away at the Conservative vote or the NDP vote isn’t rebounding by budget time, maybe the Liberals won’t feel the need to adjust too hard in one direction or the other.

Regardless of the choice they eventually make, the Liberals should be glad because they are in a position to actually have choices at their disposal thanks to this turn of events. If those figures showed that the deficit was on the same track or even a worse one than last year, that would take a lot of off the table for the government and leave them with fewer options, ones that would be less palatable and with greater political costs. We’ll see how it all plays out when the time comes but Budget 2019 will be the first big card to be played in this year’s election. It will have a lot to say about what the next nine months will look like and tonight it seems that the government has been dealt a better hand than they might have expected.