Friday, May 15, 2015

Government-funded political ads: Grits want in on the gravy train

Ioften hear people wonder about the kind of prime minister Justin Trudeau would make, and what a Liberal government led by him would look like. And, while I’m not much help on the Trudeau-as-PM part, I think I’m safe in pointing out that Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals are as good an example as any of what a federal Liberal government would look like.

The Ontario and federal Liberal parties may be organizationally independent and have separate memberships, they are nevertheless pretty much the same when it comes to their core membership and internal movers and shakers. One needs only think back to the bonhomie and speech-making that we saw at both Mr. Trudeau’s and Ms. Wynne’s leadership conventions. For the most part, it was impossible to tell who were actual delegates and who were just observers.

The Grits attending those events all seemed to consider themselves “inside the tent.” Time and again, leaders of the federal Grits heaped praise on former premier Dalton McGuinty and his replacement, Kathleen Wynne.

Keeping this in mind, it is instructional to observe the Liberals in Ottawa railing against the Tory practice of using taxpayer money to fund partisan advertising such as Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre using taxpayer dollars to produce videos of himself promoting the universal child care benefit.

Senior Liberal MP Marc Garneau reportedly complained the videos show that the government has attained new heights of arrogance by  assuming Canadians are “too stupid” or “don’t care.”

Strong language indeed. And he’s probably right, or mostly so.

So what, I wonder, does Garneau and his Liberal colleagues make of what their political sisters are doing on this same file at the Ontario Legislature?

According to Ontario's auditor-general Bonnie Lysyk, Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario Liberals want to strip away most of the province’s rules on partisan ads. Something the auditor says would undermine her office. Two weeks ago, Ms. Lysyk accused the Grits of trying to “gut” the provincial act governing advertising, and she issued a special report Tuesday.

Ms. Lysyk says changes proposed by the Grits open her office of Auditor-General to “mockery” as an independent officer of the legislature. So upset is she that Ms. Lysyk wants to be relieved of her duty to review government ads before they run.

Deputy premier Deb Matthews got her two cents worth on record. According to The Canadian Press report I saw:

Deputy premier Deb Matthews says the Liberals wanted to clarify the definition of partisanship in government ads, which she says will make the rules clearer.”

I winced when I read that one.

So I wouldn’t expect Ottawa’s government advertising practices to change much under Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, if what is going on at Queen’s Park is any indication of how the Grits operate when they have the hammer.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Teachers demand Premier Kathleen Wynne stands and delivers

Three Ontario school boards are asking the Ontario Labour Relations Board to decide on the legality of high school teachers’ strikes. The Durham, Peel and Rainbow/Sudbury boards believe the strikes are not allowed under the current legislation because “central” rather than local issues are in dispute.

The School Boards Collective Bargaining Act, 2014, also known as Bill 122, sets out a two-tiered bargaining system for Ontario’s education sector, whereby the most costly items like class size and salary are bargained over “centrally” between the provincial government, the association of school boards and the provincial unions. So-called “local” issues such as performance appraisals and grievance procedures are negotiated between individual school boards and union districts.

The new legislation was passed by the Ontario Legislature on April 8, 2014 so is quite new to both teachers’ unions and school boards.

Durham teachers went on strike April 20 followed by those in Rainbow/Sudbury two weeks ago and then those in Peel just last week. I’ve also seen reports that six more boards will be targeted in the coming weeks by the public high school teachers’ union. Moreover, other unions are reportedly growing frustrated at the bargaining table and could follow suit.

Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government and its immediate predecessors under former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty are generally seen as “education friendly” and have been about as generous to teachers as any government I’ve seen in Ontario going back to the 1960s. Despite this, we seem headed for a summer and fall of labour chaos in our education sector.

Teachers’ unions are insatiable. And the more the government gives in to their demands, the more demanding they become. The many concessions made by the McGuinty and Wynne governments in the past have been taken as weakness and emboldened union leaders.

Furthermore, teachers’ unions gave millions of dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours last year to help elect a Liberal government. Now they are looking for a return on that investment and they are more likely than not to get one.

There is little doubt in my mind that the teachers will dump their support for the Grits unless Premier Wynne and her education minister, Liz Sandals, cave in and meet substantially all of the unions’ demands. If the government does stand firm, we can expect to see the rapacious unions turn away from the Grits en masse and throw their considerable financial and human-resource support to Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats in the 2018 election.

The government is, of course, in a bind. They have squandered billions on eHealth, ORNGE and the power plants and managed the 2008 financial crisis and following recession poorly. Not surprisingly, therefore, they now find themselves with a stubborn structural budget deficit and rating agencies threatening to downgrade the considerable provincial debt. And any downgrade in the province’s debt will almost certainly be costly and will itself add to the deficit.

In the 2012–13 school year, we saw teacher walkouts and work-to-rule campaigns that some describe as “labour chaos.” Not withstanding those trying days, I suspect that, if Premier Wynne and Ms. Sandals stand firm, we haven’t seen anything like what we can expect in the upcoming months.

By so eagerly accepting the largesse of the unions in the past couple of general elections and several by-elections, Ontario Liberals have sown the wind and must now reap the whirlwind of teachers’ buyer-remorse.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Too much Gotcha!, too much spin, not enough substance to our political debates

There are times when I wonder if I got the Class Clown instead of Member of Parliament when I voted in the last general election. Seeing some of the antics of the members of the House during Tuesday’s Question Period is one of those times.

Yes, the Liberal leader Justin Trudeau did put his foot in his mouth and, I suppose, deserved to be mocked by the Conservatives. But, really, why can’t we ever seem to deal with substantive issues in a straight forward unambiguous manner? Why do we always seem to be playing “gotcha!” with each word or phrase uttered by our politicians.

Benefiting every single family isn’t what is fair,” is what Trudeau said, in part. He continued to say, “What is fair is giving help to those who need it the most,” giving context to his opening line and providing the “real” meaning of his words.

Readers are probably wondering why I as a Conservative would seem to be defending Justin Trudeau of all people. I deliberately chose this example to make my point about “Gotcha politics” so I would not be so easily dismissed as giving just another partisan rant.

Mr. Trudeau obviously chose a clumsy way to make his point on Tuesday, and his opening line was sure to bring, at the very least, a smile to the face of even the most rabid Grit and some sort of pithy retort from the government side of the House. Was it, however, too much to also expect a response that rebutted the substance of what he said?

Canadians want to know what their political leaders plan to do on their behalf and their leaders’ views on issues are important for them to know—at least, that’s what I believe. It is difficult, however, for us to get this information if it comes to us in out-of-context, chopped up sound bites or through the filter of media or political party spin machines.

The point Mr. Trudeau was trying to make, I think, is that it’s more important to target help to those who need it most rather than give help universally. And isn’t this a reasonable point and one worthy of debate? What we get, though, are headlines stressing his unfortunate use of words, “Benefiting Every Single Family Isn’t What Is Fair,” and no debate on the substance of his remarks.

Now some will say, that’s Mr. Trudeau’s fault—after all, he chose the words he used. But who loses here is more important to me: it is ordinary Canadians who lose. We get to smile at the Liberal leader’s expense, but we are no further ahead in knowing why he disagrees with the principle of universality in this case or why Prime Minister Stephen Harper supports that important principle.

Only a minor opportunity lost, I suppose. But it does seem unfortunate for our democracy that grown-ups in public office do not seem to be able to carry on a substantive debate without every word and phrase being parsed and scrutinized to see if it can be used in a less flattering, more misleading way or worse, be completely taken out of context.

Hyper-partisanship and animus seem to motivate too much of what passes as politics in our country, and there is fault on all sides, including the news media which seem to have an insatiable appetite for controversial sound bites and misstatements, even when unintentional.

This is not healthy for our democracy.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Elizabeth May uses profanity in bizarre press gallery dinner speech and covers up with inane excuses

Speaking at the annual press gallery dinner on Saturday night, the Green Party leader Elizabeth May gave what was described in the Hamilton Spectator as “a rambling, profanity-laced speech.” And after what witnesses described as a “bizarre and awkward” performance, an unsteady Ms.May, the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, had to be led from the podium by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, before Ms. May could embarrass herself further.

Speeches by senior politicians at this annual shindig are intended to be non-partisan, light-hearted and somewhat self-deprecating with usually a joke or two at the expense of media members. Ms. May, however, reportedly went on at length in speech not at all in the spirit of the event and capped it off by using her cell phone to play the theme song from the old TV show, Welcome back Kotter. Then, just as Raitt tried to usher her off the stage, Ms. May yelled into the microphone that Omar Khadr has “more class than the whole fucking cabinet.”

Since then Elizabeth May has used virtually every lame excuse in the book to justify her behaviour to the media.

“My funny speech wasn’t funny … I apologize that I made an attempt to be funny and edgy. …and it didn't work,” are a couple of quotes I got from Toronto media. She also claimed: she was just getting over the flu; she had put in a 21-hour workday on Friday. She mentioned she’d been taking the cold medicine Nyquil but then said, “I’m not one of those people who wants to use the ‘I was on cough medicine’ excuse.” Yet she is, apparently, one of those people.

But my favourite excuse is this one. Ms. May acknowledged she drank wine before taking the stage, but insisted she wasn’t drunk: “I didn’t have a lot of wine, but it may have hit me harder than I thought it would.” Hmm …

All this is so typical of Elizabeth May who, as many of you readers know only too well, has a penchant for hyperbolic comments, which she later disavows or for which she makes excuses.

Speaking at a town hall in Nanaimo, B.C. on April 13, 2014, the Green Party leader called the PMO “a $10-million-a-year partisan operation filled with ruthless, cutthroat psychopaths.” May claimed later she made the comments “in jest,” according to a Metro article.

In the early days of Stephen Harper’s government, Ms. May made a nasty reference to history judging the prime minister “more culpable than Neville Chamberlain.” She later tried to justify her words by claiming she was quoting someone else.

Then there was the 2007 interview on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin during which Elizabeth May called Canadians “stupid.” Later she blamed her tendency to talk too fast and a faulty microphone for her words.

And when Ms. May responded on her blog to accusations that she had called Canadians stupid, she wrote: “I reviewed all this on TVO with Steve Paikan [sic] more recently and he confirmed that no one in the room thought I had said Canadians are stupid.” But TVO’s director of corporate communications quickly rebutted that and wrote a letter to the Green Party setting the record straight by saying “that at no point … did Steve Paikin express such a personal opinion,” and asking that May’s “blog posting be corrected.” So, apparently, truth is not Ms. May’s long suit.

Aside from what seems an inability to control her tongue, Elizabeth May is a hypocrite. She has spoken out often about breaches of decorum in the House of Commons, even small ones, yet she calls PMO staff “ruthless, cutthroat psychopaths,” and uses the “F” word to insult the entire cabinet. Even if she cannot respect the individual members of cabinet, she should, at least, be able to respect the offices they hold. She is after all an MP and party leader.

Moreover, Elizabeth May is a coward because, having made several intemperate remarks over the years, she resorts to obfuscation, claiming her comments were in jest or misunderstood, or implies they were caused by over-work, cold medicine or perhaps a bit too much wine. Someone worthy of the office of party leader would simply take ownership for her gaffes and apologize without the mealy mouthed excuses.

Ms. May’s political judgement appears often to be clouded by animus towards Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government. An animosity which seems to transcend mere political partisanship to a more visceral level that, to this observer at least, looks a lot like malice and spite.

I get the impression that, as a single-issue zealot, Ms. May will malign anyone who has a marked disagreement with the aims of her international Green movement. Her “truth” is the only one with any relevance. And anyone who does not wholeheartedly embrace her belief system becomes a target for her derision.

Inexplicably, though, Ms. May seems to have become a darling of the Toronto media establishment and gets far more attention paid to her views and causes than she deserves.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Ontario PCs choose MP Patrick Brown as leader

Well, the votes have been counted and members have made a clear choice for leader of the Ontario PCs. Barrie MP Patrick Brown is that party’s new leader and by a significant margin over Whitby-Oshawa MPP Christine Elliott who was deputy leader under Tim Hudak.

The result reminds me of two old adages: Voters are always right; and Voters get the government/party/leader (take your choice) they deserve. These are no less true in this case.

Ordinarily, as a supporter of Christine Elliott the loser, I’d sulk  for a day or two and then accept the majority decision. And, by the next election, I’d be right in there cheering the party on. In this case, though, it seems different.

I’ve been a member of the Ontario PCs more or less continuously since about 1972 and have voted for them in every general election, and in the odd by-election, since then. But I must admit that the selection to lead the party of an obscure federal back-bencher with little or nothing in the way of accomplishments is just too much for me to swallow.

I’m a conservative and will only ever vote for a party which promises fiscal conservatism, so I can’t say I’ll never vote for a Brown-led Ontario PC party. I will not, however, remain a party member. Not that I’ll be missed; the party has signed up tens of thousands of new members, who seem to want to go in a different direction than I’d prefer.

I remember when Mike Harris, who I supported, first became leader. At that time, I felt he needed to “grow” into the job before facing his first general election as leader. And he did. His professional development in a relatively short time was nothing short of amazing, and justified my confidence in him.

So perhaps Brown, who I believe is in well over his head, will also seek and follow advice and grow into his new job. Unfortunately, though, I believe that is unlikely.

And that’s a shame for Ontario needs better fiscal management than it’s getting or is likely to get over the next three years from the scandal-prone Liberals.

Friday, May 8, 2015

At the PMO partisanship trumps security

The two videos produced by the Prime Minister’s Office and published on its 24/Seven Internet website earlier this week, apparently,  had not been reviewed by the Department of National Defence prior to the posting, which is contrary to an earlier claim by the Prime minister’s Office.

I refer, of course, to promotional videos of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tour of Iraq and Kuwait that showed the faces of members of Canada’s armed forces, some of whom are believed to be operators in Canada’s elite special forces.

Activities and  identification of personnel of the special forces are considered classified, and are not usually commented on by officials of the Government or the Department of National Defence. And some believe the PMO’s carelessness has left the special forces personnel shown in the videos vulnerable to attack by extremists.

According to The Globe and Mail:

Initially, the PMO had assured reporters the military vetted the videos before they were published online. Senior government officials told the media that the Forces had raised no objections to what had been uploaded, statements that left the impression the military was in part responsible for the fact the videos made it online.

“Sources say in fact it was only after journalists drew attention to the videos Tuesday that the Canadian military had an opportunity to scrutinize the footage and to conclude, as it did later that day, that the material represented a risk to soldiers.”

If the newspaper report is accurate, then we have a serious breach, not just of security, but of trust in the PMO, one of the most important institutions in our land.

For months now, we’ve been hearing from the Tories how seriously they take the terrorist threat and how they are the party most able to keep Canadians safe. Moreover, members of the media who accompanied the PM on his trip to Middle East were prohibited from publishing or broadcasting images that show the faces of members of our armed services out of concern for the safety of the military personnel and their families.

But still it reportedly took some eight hours for the PMO to apologize and admit the posting of the offending videos were a security breach. And, even then, their statement came across more like a mealy-mouthed excuse than an honest, heartfelt apology. Moreover, PMO did not correct the false impression that the DND had given the go-ahead prior to the original posting on the Internet.

It is not clear if any disciplinary action has been taken against PMO personnel. That office would only say they were “…undertaking a thorough review of the protocols,” and refused to discuss the matter further.

The Conservatives in Ottawa have made one political gaffe after another—a pretty steady stream since 2006 in fact. And in most cases one can point to the PMO as the source, or the root cause. And, yes, the media does blow everything out of proportion, but we should not use that as a reason to excuse poor judgement or to condone political tone deafness or downright ineptitude on the part of the PMO.

For years, we’ve heard concerns that the Tory government is too influenced by the “boys in short pants,” you know, the too-clever-by-far youngsters who work in the PMO. There is about the PMO a culture of extreme partisanship and arrogance that seems to say: We always know what’s best for everyone, and we are above the rules. So you (everyone else) must do as we say, not as we do. Unfortunately, with a fall general election looming, it may already be too late to change the culture in the PMO.

The way I see it, the Conservative Party of Canada could take a lesson from the reversal in fortunes experienced by the Alberta PCs. That party seemed to operate on the basis that its base had nowhere else to go so it could go about its business while paying little or no heed to those voters. Those Tories soon found that conservatives can and will go elsewhere if pushed too far.

Some, though probably not many, will “park” their votes with the Greens while others will vote for the Liberals. And many of us will stay home and not vote at all.

While it’s never too late to get one’s act together, time is running out.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Albertans had little choice but to turf out the PCs

The political news from Alberta this week has not been good tidings for those of us who favour conservatism. We can’t be too surprised, however, given the recent signals voters have been sending to their tired old Progressive Conservative government.

In the 2012 general election in Alberta, voters signalled, via public opinion polls, that they wanted change in how the province was governed. But the incumbent PCs mistook their last minute reprieve at the polls as a voters’ endorsement rather than what it was: fear of the Wildrose Party’s inexperience and of the social conservatives on that party’s extreme right.

In the end, their record-setting unbroken 44-year run in government was likely as much a major factor in their loss in the May 5 provincial election as were the PCs tribulations under the leadership of Alison Redford or the political ineptness shown by her disappointing replacement, Jim Prentice.

In short, voters were fed up with the PCs, who didn’t seem able to justify being given even one more day in office. Moreover, so fed up were they with the ruling PCs, they voted them down to third party status behind the majority NDP and the official opposition Wildrose Party.

Having said that, one cannot ignore the disastrous Redford–Prentice double whammy effect.

PCs had elected Alison Redford as their leader to revitalize the government and the party. She was supposed to be the “change” voters had signalled was needed if the Tories wanted to remain in power. Instead, what the PCs—and unfortunately the people of Alberta—got were two years of mismanagement and turmoil. Redford, it seems, had serious entitlement issues.

So PC supporters looked elsewhere for a new fixer. And to fill that role they selected former Conservative MP and cabinet minister Jim Prentice who, on paper, seemed a pretty good choice. By then, though, much of the PC’s base had given up or owed their political allegiance elsewhere: Prentice was elected leader with a shockingly low 23,000 votes.

Prentice’s short period as leader and premier was marred by small gaffes and political tone-deafness such as his “look in the mirror” comment to Alberta residents and his “math is difficult” comment to the NDP’s female leader during a campaign debate.

And, of course, a weak budget with too many unpopular tax increases was not helpful at all. Prentice then capped off his tenure as premier by disregarding the PCs’ own fixed election date and dropping a writ one year earlier than scheduled.

At the beginning, the Tories pretended the election was about their  so-called transformational budget, but, as their prospects dimmed they switched to fear-mongering over what an NDP government might do to Alberta’s already faltering economy.

And the Tories did have a point: the Dippers are going to do a royalty review and plan to increase corporate taxes. There is also some concern over suggestions NDP leader Rachel Notley may pour money into poorly conceived policies concerning “adding value” to Alberta’s natural resources. 

Voters were not impressed, however, for the fear-mongering was coming from a PC party that itself had tabled a very questionable budget only a month or so before.

So, with the socialists now controlling one of the most powerful engines of our national economy, how concerned should we be?

Well, were I a business person in the Alberta energy sector, I’d be very concerned. Even here in Ontario I’d be moderately worried since this province depends somewhat on manufacturing support it provides to energy-based activity in Alberta. With the U.S. economy humming along and our lower dollar helping exports, however, we may not feel much economic pain here, at least, not because of a socialist Alberta. We can expect plenty enough economic pain from our own suffocatingly paternalistic Liberal government.

Alberta will, in all likelihood, find the inexperience of the NDP MLAs and, especially, their cabinet ministers a very real handicap. Ontarians know something about that after the Ontario NDP won a majority government in 1990.

Ontario did, of course, survive and recover—though it did take a Common Sense Revolution to get it back on track. Four years should be enough for the conservatives in Alberta to unite politically and ready themselves for a return to power, should the dippers falter as I expect they will.

It was time for a change in Alberta—voters were demanding it. The Right couldn’t provide that change so the Left filled the vacuum. Over the next four years we’ll find out how high the Butcher’s Bill will go.

Monday, May 4, 2015

I voted Elliott in Sunday’s PC leadership election

Ivoted on Sunday in the Ontario PC leadership election so, at least in my case, the die is cast so to speak. Some of the 76,587 eligible members will not vote until the second voting day on Thursday, May 7, and then we’ll hear the results on Saturday, May 9.

I voted for the veteran PC MPP for Whitby–Oshawa, Christine Elliott, who I believe ran a competent and well-balanced campaign.

I really do believe Ms. Elliott’s promise “to grow the Big Blue Tent,” and see in her a leader with the ability “to clean up the mess left by the Liberals because we will win seats in all regions of the province, including the GTA and Toronto,” as her web site puts it.

With Christine Elliott as leader, I see hope for real change in the Ontario PC party’s fortunes. Her politics differ from that of the former leader, Tim Hudak’s. And that’s a good thing since Hudak’s politics were soundly rejected by Ontarians in two general elections. 

Classic progressive conservatism used to be at the heart of our party’s core beliefs—that is back in the days when the party governed the province for an uninterrupted run from 1943 to 1985. Ms. Elliott, it seems to me, is the candidate most likely to return the party to its roots, which seems to be summed up by her catchphrase, “fiscal responsibility and social compassion.”

In contrast, I don’t see how Patrick Brown improves the Ontario PCs’ prospects beyond those we had under Tim Hudak. Neither do I find anything about him inspiring, nor do I see enough difference between the tone of his politics and that of the past two PC election platforms to give rise to my hope of another Ontario PC government in my lifetime.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: What Mr. Brown’s supporters see in someone who has accomplished as little in Ottawa as he has is beyond me. Mr. Brown has not even committed to running provincially if he loses his leadership bid. Instead he says he’ll run if asked.

Why in heaven’s name does he need to be asked? Hell, the man is running for the leadership of the party! Who asked him to do that? Apparently, this career politician sees his future as either an Ontario PC party leader, or he’s prepared to return to relative obscurity as an Ottawa Tory backbencher.

In recent elections, the Ontario PCs have run on a right-wing platform, not even giving lip-service to policies that would be consistent with the “progressive” element of its name. And this I believe has been a mistake. As I have written before:

Many famous conservative statesmen have been proud to have their names associated with progressive–conservatism, including Benjamin Disraeli, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, David Cameron, William Howard Taft, Dwight D. Eisenhower and the federal PC prime ministers who have represented Canada’s conservative movement prior to Stephen Harper.

Few, if any, of these statesmen would accept the label of “Liberal Light,” one Mr. Brown likes to pin on Ms. Elliott. Yet Mr. Brown could not fill the leadership or statesman shoes of a single member of the aforementioned group.

Contrary to what Mr. Brown would, apparently, have us believe, being a progressive conservative is not the same as being a Liberal, although a successful political party in Ontario does need to attract votes from both centre-left and centre-right, where most Liberals reside on the political spectrum. As I recall, former premier Bill Davis had little if any problem differentiating his party from the Ontario Liberals and beat them every time he went he went up against them.

In recent times, Ontario’s PC party has become so closely identified with right-wing (rather than centre-right) politics that its members are often referred to in the media simply as “Conservatives” as if the federal party and the provincial party were indistinguishable.

To be sure, the parties share policies, membership, volunteers, etc., and the federal party—the direct successor of the right-wing populist Reform Party of Canada—under Stephen Harper has borrowed much from former premier Bill Davis’s progressive conservative style of governing. I would say that, despite its right-wing reputation in the media, the federal Conservatives govern more like a traditional Canadian-style PC government than did former PC premier Mike Harris or, I suspect, Tim Hudak would have done.

In Christine Elliott, I see a chance to return to a common sense approach with core conservative values informing our fiscal policy and a progressive approach to programs such as health care, education, public transit, mental health and ecology.

That’s my dream.

My nightmare is that a Patrick Brown victory on May 9 will be followed by eight more years of political irrelevance for the Ontario PC party.