Thursday, September 17, 2015

Election 2015: Debate #2

The second debate of the 2015 election was about the economy, and each of the leaders had their own challenges coming  into it. Stephen Harper came into the debate with some good news behind him. There was a small surplus last year, and Harper is hoping to leverage that news as he attacks the others on their plans. But he is weak on the economy on a number of fronts, so it was interesting to see how he defended his record of low growth and deficits while attacking the others. Mulcair has put himself into a difficult spot by promising to balance the budget even when the economy looks to be headed to a rough patch. He had to convince Canadians that he could actually deliver all he is promising without cutting significantly or keeping Harper's cuts in place. Trudeau had the easier job in this debate compared to Mulcair as he would be able to clearly place himself in opposition to the plans of the other two. His plan is also much more tangible and realistic, and he would come out on top if he could convince Canadians of that.

My first impression was that the debate lacked some clarity and at times the moderator really needed to step in to reign them in and there were several exchanges to devolve into shouting matches. That being said, I think all the leaders came out unscathed. Harper held his own with his base, and kept up his usual talking points that will please the people who were planning to vote for him anyway. He has not won any new voters over.

Tom Mulcair was the weakest of the three in this debate. Because of the way he has positioned himself as in the middle of the road, it was difficult for him to carve out a space for himself. Mulcair is going to have a hard time convincing Canadians that he is going to be different than Harper on the economy, because he seems to be using Harper's numbers and is committed to a surplus even if he has to keep Harper cuts to get there. He was also weak on explaining where he is going to get the money for his promises. I think he was very calm and definitely had a better performance than last time. He could well improve further in the rest of the debates. What he needs to work on connecting with Canadians, and really proposing a vision for the future. He appears to be struggling to push past the other leaders into the territory he needs to be in to win clearly. He really needed to show to progressives to move over to the NDP and he failed to do that. But he hasn't hurt himself with this debate.

Justin Trudeau was by far the most passionate, and more confident in his plan than Mulcair. Although he at times got a bit tongue tied, he was the most effective at differentiating himself from the other two, which was probably his main goal in this debate. I do think that at times he came off as if he is less comfortable with the facts, but I think the fact that he is proposing a very different vision is going to benefit him, and might well attract more voters. He was also trying to get the message across that he is telling Canadians the truth about the economy, and on that I think he might be successful. He didn't leave any good attack ad soundbites, but he still did not do enough to convince Canadians that he is competent enough to run the country. If Canadians vote Liberal it will be because of the plan, and more in spite of Justin Trudeau's personal competency.

All this debate has done is reiterated the fact that this is a three way race, and that benefits Stephen Harper. I think that this debate hurts both the NDP and the Liberals because neither of the leaders were able to make a break, and that will lead to the Conservatives winning yet again, and perhaps even a majority if the splits go in their favour. We still have lots of time left in this election, and if undecideds cannot decide between the progressive choices, things will play into Harper's hands.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Election 2015: The Interviews

Over the past three days there have been interviews with each of the main party leaders. I wanted to watch all three interviews before making an analysis so as to give a fair comparison. The first interview was with PM Harper, followed the next day with Justin Trudeau and finally Tom Mulcair. I think these were all very telling interviews and showed a lot of where the leaders are strong and where they are weak, and should give Canadians a good idea of the kind of people each of them are.

Harper's interview was very standoffish. He was quite defensive about his record, and when asked about what he would do on many issues, he seemed unwilling to admit any kind of failure or the need to do things differently. I think the part that will hurt him most was his answers to the questions about the Senate scandal and who he holds responsible. When asked about why more people involved haven't been fired, he was particularly belligerent in his answer to Mansbridge, bringing up disgraced CBC personalities as a comparison, which was just odd, and somewhat inappropriate. When listening to Harper, you can tell that he sees himself as a victim of some kind of smear campaign, and that everyone is against him. The truth is that he has never been particularly well liked by Canadians or even trusted, and this distrust between him and the Canadian people is what seems to drive most of his decisions.He thinks he has to keep his agenda from us, even on simple matters, because he fears backlash. What is clear to me after watching this interview is that this is a man who is finished. He had nothing new to offer to Canadians. Most of his answers were straight from his talking points that he has been saying since the campaign began, and he doesn't appear to believe that changing circumstances should have any impact on policy, particularly in terms of the immigrant crisis. Yet strangely, he seems more jovial and more scrappy than he did at the beginning of the campaign. Maybe knowing that he is likely to lose is firing him up somehow.

Justin Trudeau's interview was a mixed bag. At times he was quite strong, and answered the questions well, particularly on the issue of PMO power. Where he fumbled some was in discussing the refugee crisis, and what he wants to do right away when he comes to office. Trudeau is the kind of person who you can tell what he's getting at but sometimes he just fails to articulate what he wants to say in the best way. But from that you get the sense that he is genuine, and not so comfortable being tightly bound to a script, but the problem comes when he is off script and simply has no answer. I think his position on coalitions is understandable and he made it clear that he will be cooperative in an effort to be rid of Harper, although he left out the possibility of a formal coalition. His understanding of convention was there, although he flopped about a bit before getting there. I do think though that he got across his plan fairly well and came away relatively unscathed, and because he is probably the best campaigner on the hustings of the three leaders, the tiny lead we are seeing develop for his party could well grow. He has the most practical plan and Canadians see that when he talks about it. What is apparent from the interview though is that it is a good thing that Trudeau is a self-professed collaborative leader, because on his own he can come up a bit short.

Tom Mulcair's interview was the strongest. He was clear with his answers to every question, and even if you didn't like his answers, he had them. He is confident and is a very good at articulating his party's platform. Where I think people are going to think him strongest is in his own personal strength when compared to Trudeau. No doubt that Tom Mulcair would be a competent and capable Prime Minister. Where he lacks sometimes is in his policies. The Senate issue particularly will be his weakness. He basically admitted in the interview that if he takes office he will have to rely on the good will of the Senate to get bills passed, and that might worry some Canadians who are considering the NDP instead of the Liberals. I think this issue of the Senate, his position on the Clarity Act, as well as his position on deficits may hurt him. I am not sure Canadians are going to believe, no matter how strongly he says it, that the NDP are not going to run a deficit next year if they want to introduce many new programs. He needs to worry about looking like he is Santa Claus with gifts for all, because the public just won't believe that these things are all possible. He did come away the best of  the three leaders, and was the most comfortable talking about the issues. I would not be surprised if we see an uptick for the NDP after this interview.

Overall the interviews were very telling, and I think in many ways they have confirmed the things that are already known about each of the leaders. Harper is tired and his plan to keep doing the same things he's been doing for 10 years is not connecting and this interview won't change that. Trudeau is big on vision but weak on details, and needs to work in a team to reign his ideas in. Mulcair will probably not be able to shake the impression that he is offering more than he can deliver. Nobody crumbled, and at the end of the day these interviews probably won't have as much of an impact as the debate on the 17th. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Election 2015: Three Horse Race

The election has been a bumpy ride so far and we are still less than half way done. The polls have been quite volatile, but the two latest polls are suggesting the trend that I was expecting now that we are getting closer to the big day. Right now the Conservatives have dropped to third place, the Liberals are picking up some steam and the NDP are dragging. The reasons for this are varied but it most likely has to do with some genuinely terrible press for the Conservatives over the past few weeks, and the party policies being put under more scrutiny.

The Conservatives have been having a rather rough go at it so far this election. They are bleeding support even in some of their traditional strongholds, particularly in Alberta, and after the Duffy trial there has been bad economic news and an implosion of the refugee crisis in Europe, a file for which the Conservatives were seen as being insufficient actors. Now on the refugee file, the Conservatives are in a tough spot, because although 70% of Canadians want immediate action to bring in more Syrians, the 30% who don't are generally Conservatives, which is why the Conservatives haven't been bringing in many Syrians to begin with, and also why they have been cutting refugee healthcare and sending flyers around demonizing refugees as leaches on the system, even conflating refugees with terrorists. What the problem is though is that this position has reinforced the view many Canadians already have that this is a government that lacks compassion, and it is unclear if their stance to basically do nothing more for Syrians is going to get their base excited either.

Then there is the bad economic news, which the Conservatives are desperate to spin as good economic news. Canada is now in a recession, and although there was some very modest growth the past two months, the rest of the quarter could well turn out to be negative. The unemployment rate is up, and at the height of the construction seasons, Canada created only 12,000 jobs while the US economy is doing much better. This is more bad news for Harper, who was hoping to run his re-election campaign on a strong economy and a balanced budget, neither of which have materialized.  Things are not looking so great for their chances as 64% of Canadians want a different government.

On the other side, the NDP have been losing some ground recently. Outside of Quebec it has been a kind of roller coaster for the NDP, who have gone up and now are going down, as the Liberals start to extend a lead in Ontario, This comes down to the numbers. The NDP are making many spending promises while also saying they will balance the budget. Canadians do not appear to trust that this can be achieved, and are turning toward the Liberals as a result. The NDP cannot win government without more support in Ontario and BC, and in both provinces they have been faltering.

It's been good news for the Liberals in Ontario, where they appear to be making some considerable gains, likely because voters who have gone Liberal in the past but voted Conservative or stayed home last time are coming back to the fold, as well as some disaffected Conservatives who do not want to see an NDP government. The bad news is that although there have been come gains, it is only marginally helping them overall. But the trend is positive, and the Liberals will like their chances as they prepare to drop their platform. The Liberal road to victory lays in Ontario as it always has, and if they can pick up some seats in BC and Alberta they could sneak through the middle. It's far too early to count them out.

When the platforms are released next week we will get a better idea of how the plans are costed and what each party intends to cut to fund their promises. This is an economy election, so all three parties are going to have to demonstrate their willingness to put forward a vision, but also to show how they can achieve it. More debates are scheduled in the coming weeks as well. and as more Canadians start to tune in, these will have a greater impact. This campaign is far from over, and is going to be a close one.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Election 2015: A Wake Up Call

The topic of Syrian refugees has been at the forefront of the election after a Syrian boy whose family was trying to get to Canada drowned tragically trying to make the passage into Europe from Turkey. The images are shocking. A man lost his family, and has now become the centre of a political firestorm. Has Canada been doing enough to help Syrian refugees? Has Canada's role as a humanitarian nation changed? Many people will be asking these questions, especially when the response from the immigration minister has been so weak. The truth is that the Canadian government has taken Canada's immigration policy in a direction away from an emphasis on family reunification and refugee support to temporary workers and economic migrants. The Harper government has failed to support refugees, and they should be held accountable for that.

The shift away from compassion and toward business interests as paramount in our immigration policy has unfortunately left many behind. Also, the societal attitude toward refugees has become very negative. Far too many Canadians seem to think that refugees were not really in trouble in their home countries but just want to get free healthcare and go on welfare. And this attitude has been condoned and even shared by the government, and in particular the immigration minister Chris Alexander. He is the minister who presided over the gutting of healthcare for refugees, and who scolded the Ontario government for trying to make up the shortfall. He said "Simply arriving on our shores and claiming hardships isn't good enough. This isn't a self-selection bonanza, or a social program buffet."  Trudeau was right in saying that you can't manufacture compassion in an election campaign.

The fact is that this government does not care about helping refugees, and anything they say at this point is window dressing. They see refugees as freeloaders and potential terrorists plain and simple. They in fact have not promised to do anything differently in reaction to this tragedy than what they are doing right now, which means that in all likelihood very few refugees from Syria will make it to Canada before the end of the year.

Canada did not hesitate to join in bombing Libya, which along with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have turned out to be among the most disastrous foreign policy decisions in modern history. What came with those decisions is a whole lot of displaced people and a huge vacuum to be filled in Iraq which although under a despotic dictator, was stable, and providing a wedge between the Sunni and Shiite power bases. It was in this gap that ISIS came into being. We took part in most of these missions. We cannot now turn our backs on the victims.

We need to look beyond xenophobia and racism, and it starts at the top, because when a country's government is welcoming and encouraging of accepting refugees and other migrants, they create the atmosphere necessary for integration.  We need to accept the new reality of the world, where we can no longer just accept that the walls put up to keep the poor and displaced from the Western world are acceptable anymore. These are people who deserve the right of free movement as any Westerner has. They have a right to raise their families in a peaceful country. We have an obligation to take them.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Election 2015: The R Word

So it looks like we are in recession in Canada. One can argue about the definition or recession, or talk about other indicators, or how things might already be turning around, but the fact is that this is reflecting the reality of many Canadians who are losing their jobs and otherwise struggling with the stagnant economy we have had for almost 10 years now. Calling it a recession finally is just confirming what people have been experiencing. With the downturn in oil prices which are not expected to rebound anytime soon, we have to wonder if this may turn into a longer trend that if not recessionary, could certainly be called stagnation. But we are in an election campaign, so even if some economists and the Conservative party say it's not a recession, people will see the headline and they will react.

The Conservatives want to stay the course, and they believe that spending is not the way to get out of a recession. But many Canadians who see our crumbling infrastructure and increasingly lacklustre public services may question where all the money the Conservatives have claimed to be spending on growth have actually gone. The truth is that Conservatives have promised billions but often the money never gets spent. For example, the Conservatives left 97 million dollars of money for social services unspent. Also, there was 1.1 billion dollars left unspent in the Veterans Affairs Department. Similarly Aboriginal Affairs left 1 billion unspent.  Also, the much touted infrastructure spending plan of the Conservatives has been spending very slowly, and  92 per cent of the $10-billion provincial-territorial stream of the New Building Canada Fund remains unspent. All of this money presumably went back into general revenue to balance the budget, which still isn't balanced. All of this unspent money while the Conservatives give 34 billion a year in oil subsidies. The Conservatives seem to promise a lot, and then  just let the money vanish later hoping that nobody will notice. And this lack of spending is hurting the economy.

Now whether or not this is a long downturn or things pick up, it is clear that Canada has put too much money into resource development while ignoring the things that actually grow the economy, like the prosperity of the citizens of this country. More and more Canadians are out of work, or working part time, precarious jobs. Young people especially are having a hard time in this economy that seems to put big business first, and employees dead last. And the gutting of Statistics Canada has made it difficult to trust the data we get about employment.

Using the R word might be arguable, but during an election it will draw the attention of Canadians to the economy, and people may look more closely at the record of the current government and find that it isn't as stellar as they claim it is. The opposition will be more than happy to help curious Canadians make those observations, and will throw in some mud slinging among themselves while they are at it.

But the bottom line is that the economic situation is not good, and investment is desperately needed. I think it would be unwise for any party not to take the situation seriously, and Canadians should also be thinking about what is the best way to lead the country into better growth. However, "Staying the course" is starting to look less and less appealing.