Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Liberal renewal or Rats jumping off the sinking ship?

As a sometimes-Liberal voter, alienated by the Martin coup, I was initially heartened by Paul Martin's election-night resignation. Like many, I was optimistic that this would give the party time for renewal, perhaps in the form of a big policy convention/retreat, followed by a wide-open leadership race. If the party is to rediscover its sense of purpose, this is badly needed.

I'm not sure what to make of the parade of would-be candidates announcing that they don't intend to run - Manley, McKenna, Tobin. None of them appealed much to me personally, but I would have thought that they would at least make a go of it, and be part of the process. It is making me wonder what Liberal insiders know that makes potential candidates so wary of throwing their hats into the ring. Perhaps everyone is just tired of the in-fighting, and predicts that the next leadership race will be an equally ugly battle. Maybe people are hoping for the knight in shining armour.

Unfortunately, the pattern has now been set over the past week of pre-emptive denials of leadership ambitions. I'd expect a few more before the week is through, including Belinda Stronach, Scott Brison, and, unfortunately in my opinion, Stephane Dion. Lots of journalists, bloggers and "average Canadians" in English-speaking Canada like Dion, and with good reason. He's a decent individual, with a good brain in his head. But he has long denied any ambitions for leadership of the party, and I don't see that changing now. This race might feature far fewer faces than initially expected.

I do hope that some good contenders step forward. However, I fear that the reality is that Martin's team, in their quest for pointless power, alienated far too many people and pushed them out of the Liberal party. I'm not sure that many will have the drive to come back now to take on the thankless job of repairing the damage that they did. Canadian politics seems to held in great contempt right now, and I doubt that many non-politicians would choose now as their moment to leap into the fray. I sincerely hope that I'm wrong.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Four Women (or, how I narrowly lost my election pool)

If I were really creative, I would write this entry as a parody of the lovely Nina Simone's song by the same title. But I'm wiped this morning, and will content myself by saying that four women stood between me and victory over my good friend in our election pool.

To win the pool, you get one point for every individual seat called correctly. The most points wins. I correctly predicted 277 of the 308 seats - only a few seats short of victory. While I could peg this to any number of factors, I will remember this as the election where I bet on two high-profile women who I didn't feel strongly about winning, and against two high-profile women that I wanted to win, but feared they wouldn't. Betting on disappointment will sometimes save you, but it didn't this time for me.

Who are these women? Well, I ended up betting that Anne McLellan would eke out another victory, against my better judgement, and that Liza Frulla would benefit from the usual election-day surge of Liberal support in Montreal. Both lost by over 3000 votes.

I should have bet on Belinda Stronach and Olivia Chow, but I figured that Toronto was going to disappoint me. I'm actually quite pleased to see both of them decisively win, even if it cost me money.

While I'm at it, I'll throw in the pair of tight races that I also miscalled - Eleni Bakopanos in Ahuntsic and Peggy Nash in Parkdale High-Park.

Overall, while I didn't win the pool, I'm pretty happy with my overall success rate of 90% plus. My final seat predictions were L-109, C-114, N-29, B-55, I-1. As I noted in my last entry, I expected the Conservative numbers to be 5-10 seats higher, but I didn't know which specific seats. I was bang on the money - although I thought those seats would be in Ontario and the Maritimes, and not quite so many in Quebec.

Just for my own records, here are my regional scores:
North: 3/3
BC: 32/36
Prairies: 52/56
Ontario: 95/106
Quebec: 65/75
Atlantic: 30/32

How do I feel the morning after? A bit relieved, to be honest. I'm very glad that Martin is stepping down, and hope that this will mean that the Liberals go through a serious renewal process. With 124 seats, the Conservatives are limited in what they can push through the Commons - which doesn't mean that I am not at all worried about how they might govern, just that I know there are more checks in place. It will be interesting to see how soon the media sharks decide to go for blood.

In terms of individual candidates, I'm thrilled that Tony Valeri (aka The Muppet) is gone, ditto for so-con Roger Gallaway. Pierre Pettigrew has long been an albatross for ministries he has headed (ever notice that about a year after he is rotated, something bad is discovered in that ministry - that happened on his watch). I'm actually sad to see Blocquiste Richard Marceau be defeated - he gave one of the most eloquent and coherent defences of same-sex marriage on the day of the Supreme Court decision. Fluently bilingual and very intelligent, I'd vote for him if he weren't a separatist. Too many of the Liberal god squad got back in - the benefit of safe Toronto-area ridings. But I think that it won't be enough to imperil same-sex marriage, even in the formality of a free House vote.

And so it begins...

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Election Predictions Revisited

During the first week of the campaign, I made a number of preliminary predictions. Back then I wasn't counting on two things: 1) Stephen Harper's surprising ability to keep his team and tongue in check; 2) the RCMP to break with normal practice and announce the investigation of the income trusts during the no-news period over Christmas. I was counting on Paul Martin to self-immolate. Other big surprises over the past few weeks have been the steady rise of Conservative support in Quebec (not all surprising given the party's stance on federalism), the notwithstanding clause debacle, and the remarkable amount of media attention given to Buzz Hargrove.

I guess I'm going to have to recant on many of my initial predictions. To be honest, I thought about pulling out of my election pool, given the volatility of the electorate. It's one thing to have a basic idea of what configuration might emerge from the election, it's another to call each of the 308 seats correctly. As things stand right now (I have six more hours to tweak this), my seat totals run: C-113, L-111, B-55, N-29. Those numbers are likely low for the Conservatives, but I'm not willing to risk calling which seat in some swinging regions will flip, and lose two points rather than just the one. Realistically, I think the Liberals will probably be 5-10 seats lower, to the benefit of the Conservatives. But for the purposes of my pool, I'm playing it safe.

Let's go back to my original predictions, shall we?

Atlantic Canada: Still the least volatile of the regions. I stand by my specific predictions here for the individual ridings. But I hadn't counted on some of the mixed numbers coming out of New Brunswick (unfortunately, in parts where I don't live). I think that 2 or 3 Liberals go down to defeat here in Western NB, but I'm not sure if it will be to the Conservatives or the New Democrats. Newfoundland is the other region for a Conservative pick-up or two (I'm betting on Efford's riding for sure).

Quebec: Who knew that the Conservatives would be in play here? At least they feed into my prediction of the Bloc not breaking 60. I'm betting they take 55. Garneau will not win, and neither will Pettigrew. Not sure yet about Frulla. I still think that Lapierre is safe, but it's not going to be him there for long - he won't have the balls for a stint in Liberal opposition. Which is nice for Martin Cauchon, who can have his old riding back for his run at the leadership. At least 3 Conservative seats - in the regions everyone is predicting: Outaouais, Beauce, Quebec City. I don't think they'll get many more - this time. But if there is another election a year from now, bet on more gains.

Ontario: Still hard to call. I think the NDP will be the most disappointed on election day, but more because their gains were held back by swing voters. I still think they could pick up a seat or two in Hamilton and London. But I think that Jack will be heading back alone from Toronto as the lone NDPer in a sea of red. The Conservatives will make substantial gains in the 519 and 613 area codes, and a bit in 905, but not as much as they were hoping. They'll probably win 35-40 seats total. I suspect that Belinda might be headed for defeat.

SK/MB: Not a lot of national coverage from this region. I still think the NDP will win up to two seats in Saskatchewan, but otherwise there won't be much movement here.

Alberta: Will Landslide Annie win her seat again? Only time will tell, and this is the race where nobody in my pool is being honest about their predictions.

B.C.: I'm going to be up until the early morning watching what goes on here, which still seems volatile. I still think that the NDP has the most to gain here, particularly on Vancouver Island. I no longer think Svend will be elected, but I think Nina Grewal might hold her seat. It's hard to predict from across a whole continent.

The North: I neglected these three seats last time. I think that Blondin-Andrew will lose to the NDP, and the other two Liberals will hold their seats.

Will I feel depressed tomorrow night? Most likely. My predictions are a realistic best-case scenario for me. The Conservatives might take far more seats than I'm currently predicting, and while some of their MPs seem reasonable, there are still a lot of wingnuts around. I'm not comforted by Stephen Harper's comments about the Liberal Senate and Supreme Court acting as a check on his government - it makes me wonder what will need checking. But I lived through two Harris governments, and think I'll make it through a Harper one too.

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Allan Gregg, Attack Ads, and Liberal So-Cons

This will be a pot-pourri election entry.

1) I've said it before, but it bears repeating - seat count projections based on national or provincial polling data are bunk. Today's piece in The Globe and Mail about Allan Gregg's seat projections prove that point admirably. Eight Conservative seats in Quebec?!? Where, pray tell?? Even the Conservatives are praying for three at best. And no Liberals off Montreal island? I doubt the collapse in the Outaouais has been that bad. Even more startling is the prediction that the Liberals will only hold four seats outside of the GTA in Ontario. There are more Liberal safe seats than that in Eastern Ontario alone, where the Conservatives are expected to do very well - let alone the rest of the province, especially the north where the NDP and Liberals usually split the pot. Unless you're looking at riding-by-riding profiles, there is no point in making seat projections.

2) While I think that the "soldiers in our streets" ad was ill-advised, I'm not convinced that some of the others won't work for the Liberals. The direct quotes they are taking from Harper are more useful than the newspaper quotes damning Martin being used by the Conservative ads. And it's hard for the Conservatives to fight back by quoting Martin and his so-con caucus members (Hello Dan McTeague), because they can't criticize the policies of their base. The NDP, on the other hand, would be well advised to start hauling out choice quotes from Martin et al. if they want to prove that "Liberal minority = Conservative minority". Of course, there is something to be said for staying above the fray and remaining positive. But we still haven't seen the exodus of soft-NDP votes yet, and I think it's on the way.

3) Speaking of social conservative Liberals, Chantal Hebert is right (I say that so often here, it's become one of my mantras, like "Paul Wells has a brilliant piece." I suppose it's better than Paul Martin's verbal tics like "This is very, very, very important." But I digress...) when she points out Martin's hypocrisy in calling for the abolition of the notwithstanding clause in order to block social conservative initiatives while allowing a host of social conservatives to run under the Liberal banner.

What I find entirely too depressing is the fact that even after the election, barring an annihilation of the Liberals tantamount to the Conservative Party in 1993, many of their socially conservative members will survive the election. Far too many of the "god squad" are from urban ridings in the GTA - like Dan McTeague, Tom Wappel, Derek Lee, and Paul Szabo. As one of the commentors on Idealistic Pragmatist's blog points out, we could even end up in the awful situation with a Conservative or Liberal minority, but a socially conservative majority.

And on that dreary prospect, I will let you, my friendly readership, dwell for the day.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Post-debate debrief - the Notwithstanding clause stands out

I was initially planning on giving the leaders' debate a pass, particularly after the December round. That debate was so painful to watch that my partner and I were flicking back and forth between it and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, trying to decide which was more awful, before turning off the TV around 9:15. But, with a political junkie friend in town from PEI, we settled in for an evening of debate-watching. What follows are my initial reactions:

Steve Paikin: Great questions, and excellent juggling of the follow-ups to keep the debate moving along nicely. Top marks!

Stephen Harper: If anyone "won" this debate, Harper tied for the lead. He didn't get flustered, he stayed on message, and he acknowledged his inability to be flashy openly in his closing statement. That being said, I still get cold chills every time he tries to smile. Particular strong points for him were his clear and understandable explanation of how his health care waiting list plan would work (although you can debate its merits). He also refused to take on a constitutional amendment to the notwithstanding clause, which I think was a wise move (see Martin below). Possible weaknesses include his questionable decision to reverse the Martin government's tax cuts on the lowest income bracket - I think that was a winner for Martin. Overall, he came across as competent, if dull, and not overly scary, which was all he had to do.

Gilles Duceppe: Largely irrelevant to the debate, giving his points a test-run for tomorrow night, when "Option Canada" will actually be engaged by the other leaders. Paikin slapped him around on the referendum question and on the divisibility of Quebec, which was nice to see. Interesting as well to see him be the only one to stake out left-wing turf on crime prevention.

Jack Layton: Sadly, Jack was irrelevant last night. He rigidly stuck to his talking points on "working families", spoke without any passion, and didn't engage the other leaders in any real debate. I often felt as if he was speaking in an isolation booth, unaware of what else was going on in the room with him. I was particularly shocked that when Paikin offered him the chance to highlight two key issues that would be key to an NDP-supported budget, he waffled all over the place. That was a chance to get a clear message across, and he didn't seize it - Martin did.

Paul Martin: It's hard to predict how Martin will fare as a result of the debate. As a debator, I thought he was the strongest in the room last night. He spoke with passion, and seemed to be well in control of what he wanted to say, and how he wanted to make his point. He tried to make this an election about child care and post-secondary education last night, and to those who don't follow politics, might have looked as if he had a vision. I also liked his line about child care being "the first major new social program in a generation". Not so keen on him trotting out not just Dad, but Farmer Mom as well.

The big question about Martin's performance will be his promise for the notwithstanding clause. At first, I thought it was a brilliant ploy - the clause is not popular in English Canada, and it has been the third rail for governments other than that of Quebec. But, its existence has become an important safety valve. The option does exist to use it, although it takes extreme circumstances to warrant its invocation, and it is only operational for 5 years at a shot - at which point legislation passed under its auspices lapses unless re-passed. It is largely a symbolic out, but one that does mean that some balance exists between the courts and Parliament, rather than all-out judicial supremacy. Where this has the potential to hurt Martin the most is in Quebec, the province that has used the clause most extensively - and for its language legislation at that. Duceppe may be able to spin this promise into Martin questioning the legitimacy of the clause itself, and any legislation passed using it. It's one thing to say that the clause should not be invoked in a certain case, but quite another to say that it shouldn't exist. Plus, making such a promise two weeks before election day smacks of desperation.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

A little bit of history repeating?

My favourite song of the past several years is the fantastic collaboration between the Propellerheads and Miss Shirley Bassey entitled "History Repeating". I think of it as my theme song as a Canadian historian.

Observing the 2006 campaign puts one in mind of this song, especially when reading what really should be the must-read book of the campaign, Stephen Clarkson's The Big Red Machine. I've now finished reading it, and found the second-last chapter - on Paul Martin's campaign in 2004 - particularly perceptive. Clarkson is clearly no fan of Martin's, but the brain trust would be well-advised to read the book from cover to cover and learn from it. Someone working for the Conservatives has read the book, as recent reports indicate that Harper has muzzled candidates from talking about socially conservative positions. Clarkson sees this as being the big problem for the Alliance/Conservatives in both 2000 and 2004.

I will, however, be curious to see if the media trends from 2004 repeat themselves. Paul Wells noted a recent column in the Toronto Star quoting Stephen Harper as saying that his trouble in 2004 began when he appeared on the front cover of Macleans. Saturday's Globe and Mail did the same thing. Clarkson observes that Harper had a free ride in 2004 from the media until he pulled even in the polls, and then he became the object of deeper scrutiny - starting, according to Clarkson, with a column from the "dean of the chattering caste" Jeffrey Simpson. For those keeping track, Simpson lambasted Harper's tax plans in his column on January 6th.

I wonder if Stephen Harper is going to torpedo his gains in Quebec by giving ammunition to Liberal allegations that the Conservatives are in bed with the separatists, particularly if they decide to get on the bandwagon with the allegations about Option Canada, to be published in book form by author Normand Lester, whom everyone, save Paul Wells seems to have forgotten is also the author of the Black Book of English Canada. If I were a Liberal, I'd be trumpeting this fact from the rooftops, and if I were an NDP candidate, I wouldn't be touching this particular case with a ten-foot pole.

I've been finding this election rather depressing - but reading The Big Red Machine has at least restored my interest in it from an academic perspective.

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Friday, January 06, 2006

Wanted: Intelligent Leadership

One of the geekier gifts I received for Christmas this year was Stephen Clarkson's latest book Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics. I started reading it last night, and made it up to the end of his analysis of the 1974 federal election. (For those who haven't seen the book, after an introduction that covers 1867-1972, each chapter analyzes the Liberal strategy in the nine federal elections from 1974 to 2004.)

Reading about the 1974 campaign, when the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau learned from their mistakes in the 1972 campaign and got their act together - partly on the basis of campaigning on their leader's personal popularity - I found myself reflecting on how depressing the past three years of federal politics have been. I was never one who believed that Paul Martin was the great red saviour-in-waiting of Canada, and found the predictions that not only would be bring Quebec back into the fold, but also win a majority of seats in Alberta, to be a bit far-fetched. Still, it's hard to believe that so much hype could be built up around a man who has been such a disappointment. Certainly, his team doesn't seem to have learned any lessons in the past two years.

The 2005-6 campaign has been a disaster for the Liberals, which depresses me as a centre-left voter. Heck, if I can understand why "average Canadians" are thinking of voting for Stephen Harper, you know that the Liberals have gone horribly astray. I'm just glad that I'm not in a swing riding where I might have to figure out how (or if) to vote strategically to prevent the Conservatives from coming into office. Although Paul Wells is right that the prospect of "Stockwell Day, Foreign Affairs Minister" is chilling, the Conservatives have managed to highlight some of their more credible (and less terrifying) potential ministers, including people like Monte Solberg, Rona Ambrose, Peter McKay and James Moore. I still fundamentally disagree with their policy direction, but they seem more competent and articulate than much of the Liberal team.

What is even more dismaying is the absence of indicators that the Liberals are ready for some serious renewal. Where are the great hopes for a successor to Martin? No-one in the cabinet jumps to mind (except for Stephane Dion, who won't run). Martin has done a very effective job of eliminating potential rivals, which also means that he's running a weak team. There are no shades of the 1968 leadership race, when a solid half-dozen credible people made a run for the leadership of the party.

It's very hard for me not to see echoes of the 1957-8 period in this campaign. Punished by the voters for their arrogance in 1957, who elected a Conservative minority under John Diefenbaker, the Liberals showed in 1958 that they had learned nothing from the experience. It took the 1958 pummelling at the polls for serious change to begin in the party, which was banished to the wilderness and had to start again. I can't help but think that it's time for the Liberals to be sent to the woodshed again to think about what they did wrong. I'm just worried about what could happen to the country in the intervening time.

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