The gift of social media helped Trudeau, but it can also take away

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 19, 2019.

When Justin Trudeau took the stage in October 2015 to celebrate the Liberals’ majority victory, he spoke of his party’s “positive vision,” for Canada.

Their campaign, he said, had “defeated the idea that Canadians should be satisfied with less, that good enough is good enough and that better just isn’t possible … this is Canada, and in Canada better is always possible.”

As we head into what may well be one of the closest and most unpredictable election campaigns in recent years, his words that night could not be more prescient. This is Canada — and, especially in an election year, Canadians will be looking for something better from their politics.

Four years ago, polling showed that two-thirds of Canadians wanted a change in government. And it was that longing for something new, not just in policy but in style and approach, which Trudeau’s team so effectively harnessed and rode to their majority.

Their “Real Change” platform explicitly laid out the stark contrast between Tory present and Liberal future. Stephen Harper on the other hand concluded his foreword to the Conservative platform by claiming his Economic Action Plan was a success. “It’s working,” he said. “Let’s continue on with what we know works.”

In attack ads and campaign messaging, the Tories characterized Trudeau’s “celebrity” appearance — and especially his hair — as proof of style over substance. On social media, the Liberals responded by claiming that he had both and did so in a way that was charming, pithy and most importantly, viral.

From the new-found power of Instagram to the traditionally influential pages of Vogue, the prime minister managed to capture the attention of the digital age in a way few politicians, Canadian or otherwise, had.

And it worked. Trudeau came to be deemed Obama’s successor as the leader of the world’s progressives.

But what was clearly Trudeau’s greatest asset in 2015 may well be his undoing in 2019.

The problem with a campaign built on self-image and the optics of virtue is that people, inconveniently, expect it to be true. And what is fairly easy to execute in a campaign setting becomes near impossible to implement when governing.

What’s more, the gift social media gives, it also takes away. Unlike campaign advertising or stump speeches — which Canadians know is contrived — the power of social media lies in the sense that what you are seeing is, at least to some extent, genuine.

And so, when Canadians see their PM beaming with pride over his gender-balanced Cabinet or taking a selfie with a young couple while out for a jog, style becomes conflated with substance.

And now, after four years of governing, that conflation has become a collision. The chickens have come home to roost. In short, Trudeau is paying the price of the expectations he set when he promised to be a new and different kind of leader and began to practice the politics of political celebrity.

By dubbing himself the “feminist Prime Minister,” Trudeau opened himself up to the attacks that inevitably followed his expulsion of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from his caucus.

In trumpeting his commitment to Indigenous communities — not least of which being a visit to a teepee set up by activists on Parliament Hill — Trudeau set himself up to be pilloried not only for his slow progress on Indigenous files but for tone-deaf responses to Indigenous protestors.

And by claiming the mantle of Canada’s traditionally welcoming stance on immigration as his own, he has made himself vulnerable to the attacks of challengers who want to paint him as responsible for what they characterize as an unsustainable influx of irregular border crossers.

Many believe governments are not defeated, but rather that they defeat themselves. On the whole, I disagree. I think, in most cases, governments are elected to do a particular job, and when that job is done, another party is called up to bat.

For Trudeau, the job he was hired to do was to bring, in his own words, sunny ways to government.

Now that is done, Trudeau’s challenge is to rewrite his job description in a way that convinces Canadians he still has work to do and is still the best leader for the job.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

Nathalie Des Rosiers and Marie-France Lalonde dared to lead

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 19, 2019.

Less than a year after their election, it was revealed last week that two Ontario Liberal members of provincial parliament will be formally resigning in the pursuit of new leadership roles.

MPPs Marie-France Lalonde and Nathalie Des Rosiers, representing the ridings of Orléans and Ottawa-Vanier respectively, announced that they will be departing the provincial political arena this year. Their departure, should both go as planned, will bring Liberal seats in provincial parliament from seven to five.

Des Rosiers leaves to serve as principal of Massey College at the University of Toronto, a particularly fitting role considering her extensive experience in university governance and civil rights advocacy.

Lalonde intends to run for the federal Liberal nomination in the riding of Orléans, filling the space left by Andrew Leslie, who is not seeking re-election this fall. Should she be unsuccessful in the bid she has committed to staying on in her current role.

Des Rosiers and Lalonde are dynamic women and dedicated public servants. I look forward to seeing the positive change they will continue to bring as they take on new challenges. Both have been fierce advocates on issues uniquely facing Francophone communities across Ontario and their perspectives will be missed at Queen’s Park.

Just as there is no perfect time to enter the political arena, there is no correct way to leave it.

It would have been something special to hear both of their voices represented in the upcoming Ontario Liberal leadership race. But one must respect the choices they have made for their own leadership trajectories.

Both leaders have a lot to be proud of as they bow out of the provincial political landscape. They served as true functionaries working to transform the systems they were empowered to lead over the course of their political careers, and dedicated, hands-on contributors to the ongoing Ontario Liberal Party rebuilding effort.

Des Rosiers squared up against and handily defeated the former Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin for her seat in a 2016 byelection and was re-elected in 2018.

Prior to serving at Queen’s Park, she was dean of the faculty of law and common law at the University of Ottawa, and served as general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, dedicating her talents to the protection of human rights, with particular focus on the 2010 G20 summit. She was inducted into both the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada for her work on these fronts.

Des Rosiers brought refreshingly thoughtful legal perspectives to debates and has been an outspoken defender of civil rights for a broad range of Canadians. For instance, her current private members bill aims to create independent oversight for — and eventually phase out and eliminate — the use of solitary confinement in correctional institutions across the province.

Lalonde was first elected in 2014 and entered politics with a background in health-care administration.

In government she served as chief government whip, minister of community safety and correctional services, the first minister of francophone affairs and minister of government and consumer services. Her leadership brought collaborative and community-consulted reforms to police oversight under the advice of Justice Tulloch.

She was also known to reach across the aisle when needed to achieve unanimous support from her colleagues in the legislature — in one case to reshape the commemoration of women MPPs in Ontario with a monument on legislative grounds.

Should Lalonde find herself successful in her upcoming nomination bid, and the election this fall, she will bring a great deal of strength to the federal Liberal caucus.

As sizable a void this leaves for the small but mighty Ontario Liberal caucus — which will soon fit inside a compact car rather than the famed minivan — these exits create space for two fresh, energetic voices to enter the provincial arena. With three years ahead of holding the Ford government to account, opposition benches are best stacked with thoughtful, forward thinking leaders ready to work.

Des Rosiers and Lalonde dared to lead. They entered the legislature with sleeves rolled and arms swinging, and their tenacity resulted in positive change for our collective communities.

As they take their talents to initiate change in new spaces, an opportunity awaits for a new generation of passionate and progressive leaders to step forward in these eastern Ontario ridings.

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht

Norman case another blow to Canada’s justice system

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 12, 2019

Another year, yet another unsuccessful highly public prosecution.

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors announced a stay of charges against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, ending a four-year circus that took an untold toll on the reputation, finances and family of a career public servant with an otherwise unblemished reputation.

The decision by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) also had a benefit for the Liberal government. It ended the awkward prospect of a trial, which would have featured a parade of high-level cabinet ministers (current and former) along with their colleagues from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office.

Many commentators smell a rat — a desperate measure by a government to save face ahead of an increasingly tight election. I don’t share their view.

Credit where credit is due: Norman’s remarkable lawyer, Marie Henein and her spectacular team, robbed the PPSC of the “reasonable prospect of conviction” test, which the service needed to proceed.

And while Henein went out of her way to praise the integrity of the PPSC, she was not so kind to the Department of Justice and the government itself.

As Henein put it, “No person in this country should ever walk into a courtroom and feel like they are fighting their elected government or any sort of political factors at all.”

This whole sorry business raises serious questions as to what is going wrong with the administration of justice in this country.

Time and again, we have seen high-profile prosecutions collapse or defendants decisively acquitted. It is now clear that there are systemic problems that drive these failings, not least of which is the way investigations are prioritized by police agencies like the RCMP.

Most cases pursued by the PPSC are led by RCMP investigators, who seem to take forever. What’s more, when it comes to significant political and corporate securities cases, prosecutors, it seems, are often not equipped with the evidence they need to see the case through.

Consider the RCMP’s three-year investigation of Sen. Mike Duffy. Years after his suspension from the Senate, Justice Charles Vaillancourt acquitted Duffy of all counts and criticized the Crown for the deficiencies of their case. Shortly thereafter, the Crown decided not to charge Sen. Pam Wallin after another three-year probe by the RCMP.

We have seen this issue at the provincial level as well. In 2017, Gerry Lougheed and Patricia Sorbara were investigated by the OPP for more than two years for alleged bribery violations of the Election Act. The trial was highly politicized and then-Premier Wynne even travelled to Sudbury to appear as a witness. The presiding judge acquitted both Lougheed and Sorbara by way of a directed verdict, arguing that no reasonably instructed jury could convict based on the Crown’s evidence.

It appears there is a common thread that runs from the Senate investigation to that of Mark Norman. Due to the highly publicized and political nature of each, the PPSC and the police forge ahead with cases that will ultimately be abandoned or blown out of the water at trial.

All too often it seems, prosecutors carry on because they are fearful of dropping these high-profile cases. They take the position that it is too risky for them to exercise their prosecutorial discretion, and they’re fond of saying, “That’s what we have judges for.”

In the process, precious resources are wasted, and untold harm and reputational grief inflicted on those who are accused. Not the least of which is having their lives on hold for years, and the uncertainty that accompanies that.

To be clear, broad prosecutorial discretion is a prerequisite for a healthy criminal justice system. Without wide latitude in exercising that discretion, the Director of Public Prosecutions and her colleagues would be denied the true independence on which we all depend.

But after so many false starts on the part of the PPSC, the question must be asked: at what point does the excuse of a series of unrelated occurrences stop and a troublesome pattern begin?

It is a concern that needs to be raised if the very foundation of our justice system — the public’s confidence in its competency, fairness, impartiality and independence — is to be upheld.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

Lt.-Gov. Dowdeswell using her bully pulpit to better society

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 5, 2019

In the cut and thrust of the increasingly divisive and polarizing way politics are being practiced today, one of the most worrisome developments is the loss of the bully pulpit.

In some ways an old-fashioned notion, today’s practitioners seem to have forgotten its power of moral suasion, to forge consensus, to truly lead.

The notion of the bully pulpit came to prominence in the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, who realized the presidency afforded him an unparalleled platform to promote his priorities and outlook for the nation. Roosevelt took advantage of the prestige of the White House and cultivated relationships in order to convince Americans — and in turn, an intransigent Congress — that the challenges of industrialization required drastic measures in the form of regulation.

Today, politicians have come, wrongly in my point of view, to believe that the bully pulpit itself is no longer a powerful tool. Rather, they favour announcements, programmes and spending.

As one premier once told me “I don’t get out of bed to announce anything less than $100 million.”

The result? Public discourse has become transactional rather than aspirational. More and more, it has become focused on the here and now at the expense of building a better tomorrow.

One civil society leader, instructively not a politician, who understands the power of the bully pulpit — in spades — is Ontario’s lieutenant-governor, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell.

Her Honour deeply understands this platform and its uses. In fact, she refers to herself as the province’s “Storyteller-in-Chief,” and broke with tradition in her inaugural speech by stressing not her priority focus but instead her commitment to use the office as a forum for reflection and “a crucible for ideas.”

On Tuesday evening, I watched Dowdeswell in action in her suite at Queen’s Park as she delivered a speech to open her latest exhibit, Speaking of Democracy and provided a textbook example of the bully pulpit in practice.

Her Honour spoke of the strictly non-partisan nature of her role, and her duty as the guarantor of responsible governance. She noted that viceregal representatives have been described “as a conscience … representing the hearts, minds and souls of citizens.”

She then went on to make a point that has stuck with me.

“Democracy,” she said, “is about so much more than government. It is about … how we learn to live together on this planet in peace and harmony. And so I ask questions, hoping to evoke the best of ourselves.”

While Dowdeswell has clearly mastered the use of the bully pulpit, she also benefits from our Canadian system of government with its viceregal offices spread across the country.

As representatives of the Crown in Canada, governors general and lieutenant -governors alike have an opportunity to reach Canadians in a truly unique way. Well beyond their purely ceremonial duties and important institutional role, viceroys can focus their tenure in office on specific initiatives that appeal to our better angels: for Michaëlle Jean it was freedom and cultural integration, for David Johnston, philanthropy and volunteering, for Dowdeswell, issues of citizenship, democracy, the environment and Indigenous reconciliation.

What’s more, they can make their offices truly inclusive and accessible.

Since being invested in 2014, Her Honour has commissioned five exhibitions, accepted over 50,000 visitors to her suite in Queen’s Park and conducted more than 3,300 engagements. She has represented Ontario on international visits from Utah to the U.K., France, Italy and Switzerland, making the case for Ontario’s place in the world. Most importantly, she has visited over 110 ridings across the province, promoting citizenship and meeting with Ontarians to hear their perspectives on the well-being of community and civil society.

In doing so, the lieutenant-governor has used her bully pulpit to help provide everyday citizens with answers to their important questions and has done so in a way that models an approach that partisan politicians would do well to emulate.

A more skilful and effective use of the pulpit is hard to imagine.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

Fitzroy Gordon left a legacy of resilience and inclusion

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 5, 2019. 

The Canadian media landscape lost a great leader this week, with the passing of Fitzroy “Mr. G” Gordon, founder and chief executive officer of G98.7FM, at age 65.

Mr. G took pride in combining music programming with meaningful political and social discourse and ensuring the content was available online for listeners around the world to engage. He built the radio station, with the tag line, “The way we groove,” as a space for Black and Caribbean communities in Toronto, Milton, Oakville, Brampton, Aurora and Pickering to come together.

On Sunday afternoons, as the baseline of the Marvin Gaye classic “Heard it Through the Grapevine” hit the airwaves, listeners knew a dynamic political discussion was underway. Mr. G hosted the weekly Grapevine show himself with an aim to share important information on policy, politics and process to cultivate stronger civic engagement among his broad audience. Politicians on all sides of the political spectrum frequented the program in an effort to get their messages out, and Gordon ensured the platform was available to community organizers and grassroots movements alike.

The political impact left by Mr. G is immense. Upon his passing, statements were released by politicians at all levels of government in Canada and abroad. The trail he blazed by founding and sustaining G98.7 is one that will continue to be built on for years to come.

Mr. G was a champion for Canadian newcomer communities. He immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in his 20s and worked initially as a medical equipment technologist before carving out space as a sports journalist, contributing to both Canadian and Caribbean publications. He believed there was lost potential in professionals immigrating to Canada and struggling to find work in their own fields.

The path to launching G98.7 was lined with hurdles. The Canadian institutions Mr. G navigated were complex and took years to overcome. The CBC opposed his initial application on technical grounds with support from Rogers Media, Astral Media, Bell Media and Durham Radio. In the end, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission testing proved no disturbance of the CBC signal. Each challenge faced along the way would have been enough to force most to give up — but not Mr. G.

The legacy he left is one of resilience in building what many deemed to be an impossible dream.

I met Mr. G for the first time at a youth event at Queen’s Park in 2012. He had just completed his decade long journey to launch his station, and shared the need to be resilient when working within Canadian institutions. If we were to find barriers, he encouraged our group to be creative, patient, learn from the process and find a new way.

He taught by example, illustrating the need to do more than take up space as a leader, but create more space for the sharing of Black Canadian stories in mainstream media.

Mr. G endeavoured to cover both local and international news so those with families and interests spread across Africa and the Caribbean could feel a connection to the political realities and current issues beyond Canadian borders. He reported on elections, promoted travel and tirelessly supported disaster relief efforts.

In my final conversation with Mr. G before his passing, he was in the process of launching a representative body called the National Congress of Black Canadians. He was working with a team to lay the foundation for the organization with an aim to uplift Black Canadian populations, and as the website describes, “shed the vestiges of historical and systemic discrimination.”

Mr. G was also in the process of expanding into television. His vision was to connect Black populations from Halifax to Windsor on political issues and beyond. He wanted to bring Black Canadians together, build leaders and build bridges regionally and intergenerationally.

I stand among the thousands of Canadians who found a home in G98.7FM. I’m thankful for the sacrifices Mr. G made in order to dedicate his life to creating this space to connect the music and stories of the diverse African diaspora in Canada.

This week we lost a giant, but he left us with a dream. More than that, he left us with an increased capacity to dream for ourselves and work relentlessly until those dreams are realized.

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht

Blue conservative wave keeps rolling across Canada

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, May 28, 2019. 

Each new provincial election brings more evidence that the wave of conservative victories across the country is turning into a tsunami. And with that, the inescapable conclusion that the Liberal brand is, if not in crisis, certainly not what it was on Election Day in October, 2015.

Last Tuesday, Prince Edward Islanders not only elected a PC minority government but were sooner ready to consider the Green Party than re-elect Wade MacLauchlan’s governing Liberals.

For those keeping count of such things, that’s five straight conservative victories. In four of them, the Liberal vote share dropped to the lowest levels seen, wait for it, since Confederation.

And so, it should come as no surprise that outgoing Premier MacLauchlan’s Liberal campaign opted not to reach out to their cousins in Ottawa for assistance. Trudeau, who as recently as August, was greeted on the Island as a rock star has now become a political liability.

What a change of circumstances for the prime minister and his party.

Trouble for the Liberals all started with Brian Pallister in Manitoba, then Doug Ford, here, in Ontario, François Legault in Quebec, Blaine Higgs in New Brunswick, Jason Kenney in Alberta and now Dennis King in PEI.

Today, 82 per cent of Canadians are governed by conservative parties.

By any measure, it is a startling rebuke that, six months out from the federal election, is no doubt weighing heavily on Liberals everywhere.

That said, while it is always best to be careful in making assumptions as to federal voting intentions based on provincial outcomes, it is beginning to look like Andrew Scheer’s optimism is warranted. The Liberal ship is floundering. Its cause matters not. The handling of l’affaire SNC-Lavalin. The internecine squabbling. The accumulation of seemingly minor missteps. Or the global rise of populist right-of-centre ideology, the Liberal message is not resonating as it once did.

The three years since the blue tide began have seen the federal Liberal approval rating fall by over 15 per cent. Two-thirds of Canadians now say that Trudeau does not deserve to be re-elected. What’s more, the Liberal’s majority has, through resignations and scandal, become seven members thin.

Add certain losses in some traditional Liberal strongholds and October’s election becomes a daunting prospect.

No doubt some Liberals will console themselves with the old political rule of thumb that when we vote one way provincially, we vote the other way federally. Consider the record in Ontario. Harper won with McGuinty at Queen’s Park; Chrétien with Harris; Mulroney while Ontarians elected both Rae’s NDP and the Peterson Liberals. And, of course, Bill Davis won while Trudeau Sr. was prime minister.

But the past may well not, any longer, be prologue.

As of today, one poll found that the Conservatives were 20 points ahead in the 905 region. Although it’s worth noting the Ontario race, provincewide, is closer.

Yes, the election remains six months away. Much can and will change. Trudeau, as we know, is a capable retail politician, and, after all, campaigns actually matter.

So, Scheer’s Conservatives would do well not to start measuring the drapes, just yet. Though Liberal voters seem to be abandoning the party, polls also caution us that it is no longer simply a two party race.

We have now seen provincial voters flirt with both new and insurgent parties, from the People’s Alliance in New Brunswick to the CAQ in Quebec to the Greens in PEI. Whether this wandering eye extends to Jagmeet Singh’s NDP or even Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party remains to be seen.

What is clear is that Trudeau will not be fighting the election he was envisioning a matter of months ago. Gone are two of his most well-respected cabinet ministers, as well as Gerry Butts, his trusted adviser. His claim to a better politics of openness and integrity has been eroded by a year of scandal and melodrama, and he has lost his ideological allies in legislatures from Alberta to New Brunswick.

It’s pretty clear that the lay of the chess board has shifted, and yet much of the Liberal team still appear to be playing checkers.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

The fragile façade of Confederation

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, April 21, 2019.

Just as it is for most people who do what I do for a living, our office is littered with television monitors tuned to a variety of news channels from around the world.

And like it is for most of us, we become inured to the onslaught of images that come our way. Some real. Some fake. Many tragic. A few uplifting.

But the truth is, the images eventually become electronic wallpaper.

That is, of course, until this week when I looked up from my desk and saw the torrent of flames blasting through the vaulted roof and spire of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Like millions of others the world over, I was stopped in my tracks. I couldn’t take my eyes off the television screen as I thought about not only the immense tragedy unfolding, in real time, before me but how a symbol so strong, that had endured for so long had been revealed so quickly as fragile and vulnerable.

Over its long history, the cathedral has withstood politics, factionalism and terror.

The 13th century gallery of biblical kings installed on the façade served to symbolically align the monarchy and the Catholic Church by implying a continued lineage from the kings of Judah. During the Revolution, these statues were torn from their gallery and publicly beheaded.

As the First Republic ushered in official atheism, Notre Dame was transformed into a monument to the “Cult of Reason,” with religious icons replaced by altars to Enlightenment values like Liberty and Truth. After the restoration, the kings were reinstated and the church returned to its glory as a place of worship.

And even more threatening were Hitler’s plans to bomb the cathedral — along with most of Paris as we know it — rather than allow the city to fall into Allied hands. It was General Dietrich von Choltitz who disobeyed Hitler’s orders and saved the cathedral.

Notre Dame has miraculously withstood the threats of history with a stubborn resilience.

I thought about that magnificent cathedral this week. The dreams that inspired it. The skill and courage that it took to build it. The remarkable ability of it to adapt, change and still stay true to its values, I thought about our very own Confederation.

We, of course, don’t have cathedrals built in the 12th century in this country but we do, in their place, have the great Canadian experiment, sometimes called the great Canadian dream.

The dream of an improbably small country spread out among one of the most vast geographies of the world. A country that has — for a mere 150 years — defied the odds to remain united in vision and purpose.

And yet like Notre Dame what seems strong and secure and enduring is perhaps more fragile than we know.

This week we are focused on the remarkable success of Jason Kenney in Alberta. But it is useful to understand that his success follows on Doug Ford in Ontario, Scott Moe in Saskatchewan, François Legault in Quebec and Brian Pallister in Manitoba.

And what do these leaders have in common? Some say a move to the right. But that is a facile understanding. What they really share is an expression from their respective electorates of a desire to retreat from that great Canadian experiment.

In province after province, voters have chosen in their narrow provincial interests and not in the national interests. There are many reasons for this; many legitimate reasons. Regional alienation. Lack of economic achievement. A sense that people are not doing as well as those before them.

But the result is the same: a dangerous diminution of the value of the Canadian experiment. A dangerous diminution in the willingness to let someone else — a fellow Canadian — go first.

Politicians are skilfully, and successfully, exploiting this. Why wouldn’t they? That’s how our system works.

In fact, our system has driven our political leaders to act like the short term managers that have come to populate Bay Street. Worry about the next quarter and hope the long term will take care of itself.

It is too early to tell but we may find that our Confederation, which like Notre Dame is grand and imposing from the outside, may actually be much more vulnerable.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

With no more women premiers, the landscape of leadership has changed

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, April 21, 2019. 

There were six women sitting at the table as first ministers when Ontario hosted the summer meeting of the Council of the Federation in 2013, steering the way forward on Canada’s biggest immediate and long-term challenges.

Today, there are none.

The council of premiers back then took a collaborative approach to infrastructure investments, trade policy, skills training, strategy surrounding energy, affordable housing, health care and cyber bullying. At the time, between Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Nunavut, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Alberta, women first ministers led 87 per cent of Canadians.

Today, with not one woman at the table, Canadian premiers are working together to combat federal plans to address climate change with legal challenges and questionable, taxpayer funded marketing campaigns. And where infrastructure was once the priority, Ontario is working to slow down much needed community infrastructure projects that are led by the federal government.

The defeat of NDP leader Rachel Notley in the Alberta provincial election this past week — and the losses of her women colleagues who sat around the table in 2013 — represents a stark shift in the landscape of leadership among first minister posts in Canada.

This is exactly what Kate Graham explores in the Canada 2020 podcast No Second Chances. Graham, a senior fellow with Canada 2020 uses her research background in Canadian politics, local government, urban politics and public policy to explore the circumstances surrounding women as they take on first minister leadership posts.

Graham notes, “In 2019, why don’t we see more women in Canada’s most senior political roles? No Second Chances is an important opportunity to dig into this very question — starting with discussions with the few women who have been there. There is much we can learn about Canadian politics, and about us as Canadians, through this project — and it couldn’t come at a more crucial time.”

In total, 12 women from all sides of the political spectrum have served in the position of leader for a governing provincial, territorial, or federal political party in Canada. This list includes Rita Johnston, Nellie Cournoyea, Catherine Callbeck, Pat Duncan, Eva Aariak, Kathy Dunderdale, Christie Clark, Alison Redford, Pauline Marois, Kathleen Wynne, Rachel Notley and Kim Campbell.

The Canada 2020 podcast analyzes their experiences from multiple angles, including the unique challenges they faced in governing as women leaders, why they ran, the support they leaned on in the process, and even the family and community conditions that cultivated leadership skills in them from childhood.

The women will be coming together in person for the first time at an event in Ottawa on June 12.

The No Second Chances project is an important piece to the puzzle in understanding the challenges that have faced women in first minister roles and while seeking re-election, and yet there is still far to go in evaluating and breaking down the additional barriers in place that keep women from more diverse backgrounds from these leadership roles.

We can each take an active role in encouraging and supporting women in political leadership and building up new generations of young women leaders, who hopefully won’t be limited in the same ways.

There is a speech delivered by television writer Shonda Rhimes at the Women in Entertainment breakfast in 2014 that captures what is gained when women blaze leadership trails:

“Think of them. Heads up, eyes on the target. Running. Full speed. Gravity be damned. Towards that thick layer of glass that is the ceiling … How many women had to hit that glass before the pressure of their effort caused it to evolve from a thick pane of glass into just a thin sheet of splintered ice? So that when it was my turn to run, it didn’t even look like a ceiling anymore.

“My sisters who went before me had already handled it. No cuts. No bruises. No bleeding. Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints.”

Tiffany Gooch is a Toronto-based Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight. She is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @goocht

What Jason Kenney’s Return to the Federal Scene Signifies

When Jason Kenney came to Parliament Hill, as a Reform Party MP in 1997, something quickly became clear.

He could do outrage extremely well.

In fact his outrage was so convincing that he was favorable compared with a former MP, Progressive Conservative James McGrath from St. John’s East.

During Question Period McGrath could be writing a letter at his desk, hear his name called for a question, then jump to his feet and lambaste an unfortunate cabinet minister with a question wrapped in outrage.

Then, as the Minister was replying, McGrath would sit down and return to his correspondence, only to repeat the performance with more feigned outrage when he asked his supplementary question.

Kenney could do the same thing, minus the letter writing. In fact he would happily acknowledge that his outrage was manufactured for effect in the House and to attract the attention of TV cameras covering the Commons.

Once the Conservatives became the Government in 2006 Kenney retired the outrage act. After all, it was pretty difficult to be outraged by the behavior of a government you supported and then in which you became a Cabinet Minister.

But after the Harper Government was defeated in 2015, Kenney used some of that outrage when he returned to Alberta to first become leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, then to lead the campaign to join the party with the Wildrose Party, to then win the leadership of the combined entity and finally to defeat the NDP Government of Rachael Notley and make himself Premier.

But now that Kenney has the job he wanted, some of the things he is about to do could create outrage both in Alberta and in other parts of the country.

Because in winning over fifty per cent of the popular vote and at least 62 seats in the 88 seat provincial legislature, Kenney ran on an “Alberta First” campaign that raises comparison with the “America First” campaign that propelled Donald Trump to the White House in 2016.

Here are a few of the promises he made on the way to his victory this week.

The Conservative Government he leads will scrap the carbon tax on greenhouse gas emissions its predecessor implemented and challenge the Federal Government in court over its plans to institute a federal carbon tax to replace it.

That in itself is not new. In his court challenge he will join every other Conservative provincial government in doing just that. But combined with the fact that Alberta is the home of the energy industry, and the Kenney Government is also lifting the ceiling on oil sands green house emissions, adds a particular weight to the decision. And environmentalists, and Canadians who take the challenge of a warming globe and climate change seriously, those ideas are outrageous.

On the other hand, Kenney and many Albertans are outraged at their neighbours in British Columbia. The New Democratic Government in B.C. supported by the Green Party have gone to court to try and effectively block the building of a new, larger pipeline along the existing route of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

To counter that challenge, Kenney is threatening to implement legislation which would stop shipping Alberta’s energy products to its western neighbour. If that happens, the outrage in British Columbia will be palpable.

However, the B. C. Government is going ahead with it court case. The new pipeline would carry bitumen for Alberta’s oil sands, across British Columbia to a deep water terminal in Burnaby which is part of suburban Vancouver. The B.C. Government is proposing to regulate the amount of Bitumen that can be transported and if it wins the case the pipeline is effectively dead.

Virtually everyone in Alberta believes the so-called “twinning” of the Trans Mountain pipeline is essential to restoring Alberta prosperity to previously high levels. If the pipeline is stopped in British Columbia the sense of outrage in Alberta will go off the charts.

Kenney would like also to revive plans for the “Energy East” pipeline. That is a plan that would convert parts of existing natural gas pipelines and build other connecting parts, to create a new pipeline that would carry Alberta bitumen to the Irving Oil refinery in St. John New Brunswick on the Atlantic Ocean.

That pipeline has been effectively blocked by the Government of Quebec, which says it doesn’t want another pipeline traversing its territory and going under its rivers.

Kenney’s response has been to promise that if there isn’t one new pipeline in the next few years, he will hold a referendum in Alberta on the equalization formula under which the federal government redistributes federal tax revenues amongst the provinces.

In Alberta, it is mistakenly believed that the provincial government cuts a cheque each year, and gives it to the Government of Quebec. It is in fact the federal government which pays so called “have not” provinces out of tax money collected all across Canada.

However, Albertans are outraged by what they believe is an unfair program that victimizes them. People in Quebec will be outraged at the inferences directed against them.

A provincial referendum promised by Kenney will do nothing except raise the outrage level all across the country.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Navigator Limited and Ensight Canada, Chair of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Will Trump ever face a tipping point?

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday April 14, 2019.

Among watchers of the Trump White House, it has become this season’s party game to speculate whether the latest reason for outrage will be the final straw in this quixotic presidency — something akin in significance to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, or the Supreme Court decision compelling Nixon to turn over Oval Office tapes.

History now teaches us, clearly, that both instances helped accelerate the end of Nixon’s presidency, gradually in the case of the Saturday Night Massacre and then suddenly with the judgment pertaining to the Oval Office tapes.

But would it be President Trump’s not-so-coy flirtation with white nationalism (née white supremacy) when in the aftermath of Charlottesville, he declared there were “some very fine people on both sides?” That incident was so outrageous senior Jewish staffers, including Trump’s former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, reportedly drafted letters of resignation, and yet nothing came of it.

Or would it be his attempt to fire Robert Mueller, which was ordered and then retracted when Donald McGahn, White House counsel at the time, threatened to resign?

Perhaps it would be the president’s negligent response to Hurricane Maria and the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans in Puerto Rico. His chumminess with authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Kim Jong Un. His violation of the Emoluments Clause.

Or maybe even his ownership of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

In every instance, the pattern has been the same. The president simply carries on, while congressional Republicans express concern or consternation, sometimes going so far as to contemplate resignation, but all the while never actually taking any concrete steps toward meaningful oversight.

Now with the U.S. confronting a manufactured crisis at its southern border, news comes that it could take up to two years to reunite children separated from their families under the administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

Pile on the resignation of Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and the subsequent purge of officials within the department as Trump and his hardline immigration adviser Stephen Miller seek a bureaucrat sufficiently compliant to carry out an anti-immigration agenda of questionable legality.

And the question again becomes has Trump’s presidency reached a breaking point?

It has been eight weeks since the president declared a national emergency, unrepentant about using the proclamation as cover to divert billions of dollars towards a border wall that Congress had already pointedly declined to fund.

That the “emergency” was in fact a sham has always been clear, but it was crystallized even more so with Nielsen’s resignation — even as the country remains without a confirmed secretary of defence.

Nielsen, who oversaw the brutal and inhumane policy of family separations, has been hounded from office after she reportedly resisted Trump’s orders to close ports of entry along the border and illegally turn away asylum-seekers. Nielsen had also been backing the nomination of Ronald Vitiello as the new director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a nomination which Trump withdrew as, in his view, the role needed a more intense hard-liner.

Trump’s announcement (by tweet, of course) that Kevin McAllenan would take over as acting secretary of Homeland Security skirts a law requiring Nielsen’s existing undersecretary from filling the role — she too is reportedly skeptical of Trump and Miller’s approach to managing the so-called crisis, and the White House is now heavily pressuring her to step aside to allow McAllenan to step fully into the position.

Were this an ordinary administration in ordinary times, any of these incidents would have been enough to trigger the denouement of a presidency.

The hollowing out of the executive branch of government, by all the president’s yes men, bears a striking resemblance to the Saturday Night Massacre. The president has clearly signalled his intent to fill his cabinet with people who will act in his way, saying, “I like acting. It gives me more flexibility.”

And so the question remains: Given this unique combination of the president’s shamelessness and the Republican Party’s craven desire to maintain its hold on power, will there ever come a tipping point? Those waiting for Trump’s Nixon moment may well be waiting a long time yet.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt