Saturday, April 18, 2015

Harper Faces Frustratingly Fuzzy Future

Note: This column first appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times in September, 2014; I think the analysis still holds.

For Prime Minister Stephen Harper this must be a particularly frustrating time.

And no, what’s frustrating him isn’t the Conservative Party’s consistently poor showing in public polls, or the scandals which have plagued his government or his increasingly toxic relationship with the media.

In fact, none of that stuff would really bother Harper.

What would irk him, however, is the fuzzy nature of Canada’s political future.

Keep in mind that Harper is a meticulous planner and strategist; he’s like a general who won’t commit his troops to battle until he’s accounted and planned for every possible contingency.

In short, he doesn’t like surprises; he doesn’t want to improvise a strategy in the heat of combat.

Yet, whenever Harper scans the political terrain that will serve as the battle ground for the 2015 election, his view is obstructed by dark clouds of uncertainty.

For one thing, no one, including Harper and his strategists, knows how Liberal leader Justin Trudeau will perform once he’s thrown into the lion’s den of a national election campaign.

And Trudeau’s performance will matter because for the past year or so, the Conservatives have been airing TV ads telling us that Trudeau is “in over his head.”

These ads are meant to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of Canadians, seeds the Conservatives hope will bloom during an election, when voters will start to truly focus on the Liberal leader.

If, during the election, Trudeau stumbles, if he commits a series of verbal gaffes, if he performs poorly during the televised leaders’ debate, it will reinforce the Conservative message that he’s not up to the job.

But pinning all your hopes on an opponent making mistakes is always a gamble.
What if Trudeau campaigns like a pro; what if his winning smile charms the electorate?

That’s something Harper needs to consider.

And the “Trudeau factor” is not the only unknown confounding Harper.

He also has to worry about the NDP. More specifically, he must be wondering how the NDP, and its leader Thomas Mulcair, (who like Trudeau has never run a national campaign) will fare against the Liberals.

This is a key question because for Harper to succeed in 2015 he needs the NDP to soak votes away from the Liberals. He especially needs the NDP to keep the Liberals from scoring an electoral breakthrough in Quebec.

Is the NDP up to the job? Can Mulcair put a dent in Trudeau’s popularity? How will Quebeckers react to a Mulcair vs. Trudeau tilt?

Nobody knows. And that puts Harper’s plans in a state of flux.

Then to muddle things up even more, Harper also has to consider that the world itself is becoming increasingly unpredictable.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is rattling sabers in Eastern Europe; barbaric terrorist organizations are conquering huge swathes of territory in the Middle East; Israel and Hamas are at each other’s throats.

Given all this instability, what will the world look like when Canadians go to the polls a year from now? What will our economy be like? Will there be a war? Will there be a terrorist attack in North America or Europe?

We just don’t know.

And more to the point, Harper doesn’t know.

All these unknowns, all these variables, all these question marks, will make it extremely difficult for Harper to calculate a winning political equation.

Yet, of course, that won’t stop him and his team from trying to craft such a plan.

But just to cover all their bases, they will also have to prepare a Plan “B” and a Plan “C” and maybe even a Plan “D.”

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Merv Lavigne RIP

It saddened me to learn of the recent passing of a great Canadian named Merv Lavigne

I knew Merv way back in the 1980s when he was a community college teacher from Haileybury, a small town in northern Ontario.

And what made Merv a great Canadian, at least to my mind, was his courage and his willingness to fight for what he believed in.

In fact, that’s how Merv and I ended up crossing paths; in 1985 he joined forces with a group I once worked for, the National Citizens Coalition, to fight a legal battle aimed at changing Canada’s labour laws so that union bosses would no longer have the power to use forced dues to subsidize their political propaganda.

Merv, a Liberal activist who had run for federal office, didn’t like the fact that a portion of his dues was being used to subsidize the New Democratic Party and other causes.

So, with the NCC’s moral and financial support, Merv launched what would prove to be an historic court challenge.

Merv’s argument was simple: Forcing him to associate with a political party, through his compelled union dues, violated his freedom of association which was guaranteed in the then newly minted Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And although Merv was just one guy, his challenge scared the bejeezus out of Canada’s entire union movement.

Indeed, just about every big union organization in the country intervened in this case to oppose him.

Alas, it was a David vs Goaliath battle where Goliath ended up winning.

In 1991 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Merv, which is why, by the way, unions today are free to spend millions of dollars in forced union dues on political propaganda campaigns, whether their unionized employees like it or not.

And a lot of them don’t like it.

At any rate, I’ll always remember Merv as a guy who cheerfully and tirelessly endured six years of arduous legal combat.

It was a lot of work for a guy who already had a full time job: He attended fundraising events across the country, spoke to countless organizations, did hundreds of media interviews.

He also, sadly, endured harassment.

But never once did I ever hear him utter a single word of complaint.

One positive by-product of Merv’s hard work, was it significantly raised his profile and made him something of a media star.

The NCC’s own internal polling showed he had incredible favourables. People liked him; they liked his message. And why not? He had proven to be an intelligent and articulate spokesman.

Had he wished to re-enter the political arena, Merv could have easily got himself elected to Parliament and we told him so.

But, having enough of the limelight, he decided to focus on his family and his career.

Mind you, Merv had already accomplished a lot.

He put a key question of individual freedom on the national agenda; he rattled the establishment’s cage, and he fought a good fight for his principles.

That’s a pretty good epitaph.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

The Five Stages of Justin Trudeaumania

Stage 1. Euphoria

Oh my God! Justin Trudeau, the cutest, most adorable, most charming man in the history of our planet, is now leader of the Liberal Party. Actually, he’s more than a man … he’s a Super Hero!  His looks, his charisma, his pedigree, combined with his magical ability to transform normally apathetic and disengaged young people into disciplined legions of enthusiastic Liberal voters, make him an unstoppable, unbeatable, invincible political juggernaut! His victory is inevitable. 

Stage 2. Gloating

Ha, ha, ha! The Conservatives are using negative ads to attack Justin Trudeau. Don’t they realize that since Trudeau is so adored, so worshipped, so beloved by the masses, such attacks will only make him even more powerful?  Oh well, once Prime Minister Stephen Harper realizes he has zero chance of stopping Trudeau’s soaring popularity he will do the right thing and resign any day.

Stage 3. Confusion

It’s despicable how Harper is using “fear tactics” to curry votes, such as Bill C 51, a law which, while popular, would undoubtedly destroy our civil rights and …wait, what? Trudeau supports Bill C 51? But he's the fun guy! OK forget about that Bill, let's talk about Trudeau’s politically savvy stance on the Niqab issue which will certainly guarantee him a overwhelming victory because only racist, bigoted, rednecks would support Harper’s position that such garments not be worn during citizenship ceremonies … what’s that? A poll shows nearly 90 percent of Canadians side with Harper?! Um … let’s talk about Mike Duffy.

Stage 4. Bargaining

You know what’s really awesome? Coalition governments. All the really cool countries in Europe have these, why not Canada? It’s time we put aside our boring, bland “British” system we’ve been using for the past 150 years or so and embrace the exciting world of politics Italian-style. It’d be fun! Or let’s try implementing other cool democratic reforms, such as mandatory voting or banning negative ads or Rep by Pop. Remember no idea to radically transform our democracy is too ridiculous or too strange, if it helps Trudeau achieve his destiny.

Stage 5. Acceptance

Canada has only one political leader tough enough and smart enough to defeat Harper in the next election: His name is Thomas Mulcair.