a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Monday, August 30, 2010

Political landscape very different when Parliament goes back to work

Parliament goes back to work the week of Sept. 20 and a lot has certainly changed since it recessed for summer. The Tories are no longer on cruise control toward a majority and Michael Ignatieff may be doing a Lazarus act in his political fortunes.

Let's look at how things may shape up:

Conservatives: A clear, understandable narrative was the Tories' most potent weapon against the Opposition when Parliament broke for summer. It was the law and order party standing up for a strong and secure Canada as well as ordinary Canadians.

It is going to be a little more difficult for the Tories to continue to present themselves creditably as the law and order party while they continue to feud with the country's police chiefs, who oppose the government's plans to abolish the gun registry. In addition, it is going to be difficult to continue to be the party that stands up for the troops when war veterans are complaining publicly of shoddy treatment by the government

Pat Strogan, the recently fired federal ombudsman for veterans, may have done the Tories more damage than the whole census fiasco.

Speaking of the census, the worst for the Tories may be over. But this was a miscue that branded the government of Stephen Harper as ideologues with a hidden agenda. No wonder the Tories have lost their enthusiasm for a fall election. It may be too early to write them off but they're going to have to work a lot harder just to stay in office.

Liberals: Ordinary Canadians can be forgiven for being confused by the way the media have been reporting current Liberal fortunes. When the summer began, the Liberals were framed as a faded party that had lost its way with a leader as inspiring as dishwater.

Now Ignatieff is being portrayed as an invigorated leader of a party that somehow got it's game back on the summer barbecue circuit. Sure Iggy's bus tour not only went better than most expected, it really was a cleanly executed, professional operation.

But neither Iggy nor his party have undergone that much of a metamorphosis in the months of July and August. In reality, the media have switched news frames after tiring of the Tory juggernaut narrative of last spring. Expect to be reading and hearing a Cinderella story starring the Liberals for most of autumn.

This would be a good time for a reality check among Liberals, however. So far they've been fortunate that the Tories have been doing more damage to themselves than any Opposition party could ever hope to do. The Liberals should not count on the Tories shooting themselves in their collective feet forever.

NDP: Party leader Jack Layton is in danger of being the major casualty of the gun registry debate. The caucus is the most divided among the parties on this issue.

If the gun registry ends because enough NDP MPs side with the government, the party will undoubtedly face the wrath of urban voters as the price for saving a handful of rural seats.

No wonder Layton is now trying to straddle the issue with a compromise for a kinder and gentler gun registry that looks a lot like something Iggy proposed a few months ago.

Bloc Quebecois: If there is one constant in federal politics, it is the Bloc. It may present itself as the party that will one day break up the country. But those intentions really are a useful fiction for everyone on Parliament Hill.

As long as the Bloc exists, the Tories don't have to worry about the Liberals holding Quebec as the fortress it was in the Trudeau years. Meanwhile, the Liberals also don't have to worry about being wiped out by a Tory majority as long as the Bloc controls Quebec.

For the NDP, it is nice to have a second left-leaning party that can be an ally on important issues.

As for the Bloc, a separate Quebec may be growing less likely. But isn't it nice to have generous federal salaries with indexed pensions, courtesy of the country you want to break up.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rob Ford bid points to serious voter discontent

It would be easy to dismiss Rob Ford as just another one of those nut bar mayoral candidates who turn up in municipal elections.

His views on immigrants and what he calls "Orientals" are nothing short of offensive. He has been caught twice now fibbing to the media about unsavoury things in his background -- most recently a drunk driving conviction in Florida.

Then there was the time he was over-refreshed as a Leafs Game in 2006 and had to be escorted out by security after accosting other spectators.

There is just one tiny detail, however.

He is the front runner for mayor of Toronto in the upcoming civic elections.

Have the good burghers of Toronto lost their minds?

For some reason, Canadians have elected quite a collection of assorted colourful individuals as their mayors -- people like Mel Lastman and Allan Lamport in Toronto, William Hawrelak in Edmonton, Jean Drapeau in Montreal and Larry O'Brien, the current mayor of Ottawa.

Maybe it is our way of seeking comic relief from all the concerned and faux-serious candidates seeking our votes in provincial and federal elections. Whatever the reason, Ford's candidacy is not very funny.

The best thing that can be said about his candidacy is that he is a nihilist who opposes everything and stands for nothing. He is the kind of candidate who comes along every so often when voter cynicism is higher than usual.

Those who practise politics for a living across Canada should be paying attention to Toronto's municipal race. The voters are trying to tell the political class something.

Over the weekend, The Toronto Star published several revealing Q and As with voters who support Ford. They talked about their discontent not just Toronto politics but all three levels of government.

Ford's candidacy is a flashpoint for widespread voter discontent throughout an overtaxed and cynical middle class. The voters are telling the political class to stick it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summer politics recasting Iggy

Michael Ignatieff must be wondering if he should spend more time outside of Ottawa.

When Parliament rose for the summer, Iggy was badly bruised by a critical media and the Tories were making steady advances in the polls. Even his much-touted barbecue tour had a lousy beginning when the bus broke down on the highway outside Ottawa and had to be repaired at a place called Harper's Garage.

You could almost hear the guffaws coming from Parliament Hill.

But as Iggy winds down the summer tour, things have changed dramatically on the federal scene.

The Tories are trending downward in the polls. Much attention is being devoted to their bone-headed decision to get rid of the mandatory long-form census. Even the management ability of the Prime Minister's Office is an issue.

The Tories have been nice enough to change the channel in the media away from Iggy's problems to their own.

As a result, nice things have started to crop up in the media about Iggy.

Has the Liberal leader changed dramatically since the summer began?

Hardly. Political journalists like to have a common narrative or news frame to provide a backdrop to their daily stories. The life span of these frames can last for months until a major development -- like a sudden drop in the polls -- alters perceptions of the political landscape.

Of course, Iggy and the Liberals have received a big boost from the census controversy and the fact that Prime Minister Harper made himself scarce for most of the summer.

Even the fact that expectations were so low for Iggy's barbecue tour has worked to the Liberals' advantage. There were no disasters beyond the bus breaking down; therefore the tour is being reported as a success.

Watch for a new media narrative of Iggy and the Liberals closing the gap with the Tories.

As a former member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, I can tell you that the media enjoy playing God with the politicians. Build them up for a few months (or years, as they did with Paul Martin) and then tear them down. In Iggy's case, the media started with tearing him down. Now they will likely build him up and tear Harper down.

The media love a good horse race, always.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Few traces left of original Reform Party

There were a couple of milestones in the past week or so that served as reminders of how few traces are left on Parliament Hill of the old Reform Party.

Jay Hill, the government's House Leader and one of the original Reformers, has announced he will not seek re-election. He was quickly replaced by John Baird.

The current ruling party may have grown out of the original Reform caucus of 51 MPs who were elected in 1993. But today there are just 11 of those members still sitting in the House of Commons, and one of them, Keith Martin, is now a Liberal.

The original Reform gang had some wacky ideas (like canning prisoners or outlawing deficits). And they were certainly naive. But they brought a refreshing attitude to a very cynical city in their demands for transparency and respect for the taxpayer's dollar.

For the most part, they were well liked on all sides of the House and by the media. Hill's departure as a congenial House Leader is a reminder of how things have changed.

Another reminder is the performance of couple of government ministers in the past week.

Industry Minister Tony Clement demonstrated very nicely what members of cabinet do when they are in serious trouble -- he made personal attacks against citizens who disagree with him.

He said the wide range of groups opposing the end of the long-form census were doing so out of self interest because they have been getting market research data at the taxpayers' expense. "They had a good deal going," he said, with the clear implication his critics are a bunch of freeloaders with their noses in the public trough.

Never mind that the Constitution makes it clear it is Ottawa's job-- and no one else's-- to conduct the national census, or, that only a public impartial agency could ever be entrusted to collect personal information from the public.

Then Treasury Board President Stockwell Day argued Canada needs to spend $9 billion on an expanded prison system despite a falling crime rate. Apparently, this is because of the rising rate of unreported crime.

So how did he know this? If the crimes are unreported, where do you the statistics?

To bail out the minister, the government produced a six-year-old study from Statistics Canada that said 34 per cent of crimes go unreported to police. What the government didn't mention was that the study dealt with penny-ante crimes that likely wouldn't be investigated by police. Things like car break-ins or graffiti vandalism.

The original Reform gang used to howl in derision when ministers tried to stretch things. Many of the original Reformers must be in despair at what has happened to their party.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Parliamentary media shirked their duties

The topic of this blog is really something one would expect in a banana republic, not in Canada. And the topic is all the more bizarre because you have not been able to read about it or hear about it through the media.

In the dying days of the spring session on Parliament Hill just before the summer recess, the Commons environment committee voted, in secret, to not only reject a draft report on the Oil Sands but to order it shredded.

The draft report was written by committee staff after almost three months of testimony by environmentalists and oil industry executives.

Commons committees routinely use draft reports by staff as working documents while MPs on all sides deliberate on recommendations. But the committee, at least a majority of MPs on the committee, decided this particular report, based on 300 pages of testimony, had to be suppressed.

We don't know why exactly because parliamentary committees deliberate on draft reports behind closed doors. But since the report likely would not have included recommendations --that's the MPs' job -- we can only conclude someone didn't like what was in witness testimony. Could it have been the Conservative MPs who dominate the committee?

At the moment there is only one copy of the report locked up in the Commons Clerk's office. It will not be tabled in Parliament. Nor will it be released to the public.

According to The Hill Times, Conservative MPs on the committee are claiming the public is not being deprived because anyone is free to examine transcripts of almost three months of testimony. But that is a hollow argument.

In fact, the committee's action goes against everything a democratic Parliament should stand for.

But the committee's action isn't the only thing that is disgraceful in this sordid affair.

Where was the Parliamentary Press Gallery? This incident went unreported in mainstream media at the time and continues to be ignored, at least by major newspapers and broadcast outlets.

As a former member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, I can tell you there is no media conspiracy here. Media have been neglecting the important work of parliamentary committees for years. In addition, media are so preoccupied with covering politics like it was a horse race, they frequently miss important issues unless the Opposition decides to raise them.

And that leads to another question -- where was the Opposition? Had environmentalists not demanded to know what happened to the committee's report, no one off Parliament Hill would know.

If parliamentary democracy does die in Canada, the media and the Opposition will have to share the blame.

If you would like to know what the Commons environment committee did hear about the Oil Sands, check out article by Andrew Nikiforuk on TheTyee.ca or a story by Kristen Shane in the July 26 edition of The Hill Times.