COVID-19 is a catalyst for change as much as a crisis

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, March 29, 2020.

Responding to the events of the past few weeks, Canadians have proven their remarkable capacity for compassion, understanding and sacrifice. As the impact of COVID-19 has set in around the world, here at home our governments, businesses and fellow citizens have, for the most part, set out in earnest to do the right, Canadian thing.

In Ottawa, that’s meant an $112-billion bailout package passed with multi-party co-operation, albeit with a few tactical hiccups along the way. For provincial and territorial governments, it has meant ramping up expert medical briefings and passing legislative relief of their own. For each of us, doing the right thing has meant self-isolation, staying at home and appreciating the very real sacrifices made by health-care professionals and front-line workers.

As I wrote in this column last week, Canadians can rightfully take some comfort in the serious and responsible approach of their political leaders, who continue to demonstrate their resolve to bolster our capacity for recovery: medical and economic.

But the reality is, the upheaval caused by COVID-19 will go well beyond its medical and economic impact. Comparable more to the events of 1918 than the 2008 recession, this pandemic will upend the status quo for every country, every sector and every walk of life. So, while we, of course, need to focus on our near-term response to the quakes and tremors of this crisis, we are damned if we ignore the various tectonic-like shifts that are taking place well beneath our feet.

Before this outbreak, the past decade was marked by a transformative redefinition of issues like income inequality, tax fairness, political freedom and the purpose of the corporation.

Consider the Occupy movement, which followed the financial bailouts of the 2008 recession. While it has faded, its underlying principles and impulses live on in movements like France’s gilets jaunes and the wave of populism that has since swept Western politics.

Similarly unprecedented protests for democracy in places like Hong Kong, Lebanon and India have abated in recent months as now 10 per cent of the world has been ushered into quarantine.

As for discussions of the role of the corporation and ESG (environment, social and governance) considerations, these will no doubt take a back seat to companies’ bottom lines as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the global economy.

But to think of these phenomena as trends that will simply “pause” while this crisis plays out, only to resume after the fact in the same form and with the same velocity, is simply incorrect. Each of these issues is a log in a fire on which this pandemic has been poured like an accelerant. Rather, what is correct is that they will return more disruptive and ferocious than ever.

On an individual level, this health crisis is not equally trying on every household, as exemplified by social media outrage over wealthy individuals’ ability to seemingly jump the queue for testing kits. Even the embrace of crucial work and study from home initiatives belies the tragic reality that for many employees and students, home is not a safe or comfortable work environment.

COVID-19 has not only revealed and exacerbated these inequities, it has ensured there will be real and lasting fissures in civil society as well. It has become impossible for us to return to the norms and social order we have enjoyed for so long.

The fact is, once this is done, major corporations and wealthy people will be viewed very differently. Just as we saw in 2008, that mistrust and sense of inequality will be compounded by the very responses that governments now deem essential to our recovery.

And so, governments and business must realize the playing field has changed. Entirely. With that change must come a response that acknowledges the world looks very different. That means not just fiddling around the edges or making incremental improvements but an entirely new response.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

Doug Ford has risen to the coronavirus challenge

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, March 22, 2020.

As the spread of COVID-19 has utterly transformed life as we know it, it has also emerged as the most profound test of political leadership in a generation or more.

Of course, the pandemic is, first and foremost, a health crisis. In the global response, doctors and public health authorities have been foregrounded, and rightfully so. But it is also a crisis of public confidence and so it is appropriate to look at the crisis through the lens of the political leadership as well.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, having gotten Brexit done, now faces an even greater challenge. He has been forced to pivot from an initial anachronistic approach of herd immunity (i.e., letting the virus run amok) to proper suppression and mitigation efforts as in the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was voted out of office last month, but while a new government has been unable to form, the former doctor-turned-politician has, quite literally, risen to the role of caretaker government. On St. Patrick’s Day, he delivered a national address that marked the high watermark of his premiership.

The pandemic has forced Angela Merkel, long averse to televised displays of leadership, into doing precisely that. And in so doing proving why she continues to be primus inter pares among world leaders.

As for Donald Trump, there is only one word: disaster.

Here at home, Canadian leaders, at all orders of government, have acted on the advice of scientists, doctors and public health experts, as they bloody well should. And for that we can, as a people, be grateful.

From Prime Minister Trudeau to our premiers and mayors, the performances of our leaders have been commendable.

But perhaps the biggest success has been the commanding performance of Ontario Premier Doug Ford. It was not even two weeks ago that Ford was embroiled in a kerfuffle over manufacturing defects with new provincial licence plates; today, it seems hard to imagine a scandal with smaller stakes. And a protracted dispute with the teacher’s unions had dragged his government’s approval rating underwater. Now, in his daily briefings about the province’s response to COVID-19, he is modelling leadership in real time.

As the crisis has deepened, Ford is exemplifying the tenets of good crisis communication. He has been transparent and forthcoming, hosting daily briefings which may seem routine, but are in fact distinguished by attention to small details.

The premier begins promptly on time, wearing a suit and tie. He has been honest and plainspoken about the scale and severity of the challenge before us. He has delegated and empowered his bench of ministers, including Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott and Finance Minister Rod Phillips. He has put aside partisan considerations.

He is working hand in hand with his federal counterparts. And, for a man whose political career has been defined by animosity towards the mainstream media, this week’s explicit recognition of their essential role marked a turning point.

The premier has consistently struck the right tone in these briefings and in his other public comments, tempering the flow of essential information with genuine compassion. If there has been one misstep, it was his comment that families should go away for March Break and “have a good time.”

But as even his predecessor and opponent Kathleen Wynne noted, this rare, off-message comment can be chalked up to a surplus of empathy. “He was trying to do that out of the goodnesss of his heart,” the former premier told Newstalk 1010. “I could hear it in his voice, he was trying to calm the waters.”

In the past, Ontarians have been quick to recognize and reward leadership during a crisis. Former premier Ernie Eves’ approval jumped after he confronted the SARS epidemic in 2003. Premier Ford might come to enjoy the same.

There are uncertain times ahead, to be sure. Scientists tell us that no one knows how long this crisis may last or how severe its consequences might be. But, today, Ontarians can take solace in the actions and behaviour they have seen to date from the premier.

Such leadership has saved lives.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

Ensight Analysis: Evaluating the Government’s Communication Response to COVID-19

As any communications director worth their salt will tell you, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. This goes double for a government dealing with a global crisis. So just how effective has the Liberal government been at delivering, and staying on message?

We start with the Prime Minister. Justin Trudeau knows that this is a make-or-break moment for his leadership. His legacy will be defined partly by his handling of COVID-19, and his performance so far has reflected that. His daily updates, some containing substantial updates and others simply a message of reassurance, have shown a PM who cares about both the economic and the human aspects of this issue. Ducking inside to get his coat when he was cold during one of his briefings was particularly humanizing. Even though he is in quarantine, he has still managed to lead (while parenting three kids!) and Canadians appear to be heeding his advice. His measured answers to questions regarding the Emergency Act have been solid panic preventers, and his assurances of financial support for Canadians have eased, at least a little, the anxiety many of us are feeling. He did receive backlash for his decision to delay closing the Canada-US border, but given considerations for trade and US relations, it was not a decision to be made lightly. His performance hasn’t been perfect however, with genuine criticism to be levelled for his government’s slow start to handling this crisis. As Prime Minister, he should have been the first out of the gate with updates, news, and plans, but many of the provinces beat him to the punch.

Next, the Federal Cabinet. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has again been called upon and is the public face of cabinet while the Prime Minister self-isolated. Meanwhile Health Minister Patty Hajdu has posted solid performances in interviews, playing the calm-yet-compassionate health professional. It was a rocky start however with a Monday night scrum held by five ministers, including Minister Joly and Minister Lametti, that felt loose and unprepared and gave the sense that Ministers were playing politics, perhaps the last thing the public wants to see right now. Since then however, Ministers have kept on message, holding daily press conferences, refereed by Freeland, in which they reiterate the Prime Minister’s remarks and provide updates on their portfolios. In all, Cabinet seems to be filling the role of supporting cast to the PM, which isn’t a bad role to play in these circumstances.

We would be remiss if we didn’t end with the exceptional performance from Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam. Perhaps it’s because she’s not political, or perhaps it’s because she is a genuine health expert, but her public appearances have been lauded by communication experts. This is even more impressive when you consider that she has never captured the national attention in this way before and is in uncharted territory herself. She fulfills the necessary role of the voice of reason in this crisis. Her explanations on “flattening the curve” and why it matters are accessible, and her advice, reasonable. Overall, Dr. Tam comes across as in control, serious, calm, and knowledgeable, impressions which will make this crisis go by much more smoothly.

In totality, despite a slow start, the government’s response has been solid, with strong performances from individuals in key roles. If the government can hold the line on messaging and keep a strong supporting cast and a suite of experts behind them, then from a communications perspective, the hard part might soon be over for the government.

In CPC leadership race, one candidate stoops to a new low

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, March 15, 2020.

I was disappointed this week to learn that one candidate in the race for the Conservative Party of Canada leadership had stooped to a new low by besmirching the name of an opponent while hoisting the standard of racism and Islamophobia.

If you’re unfamiliar with the name Jim Karahalios, you could be forgiven. After all, the Cambridge, Ont.-based troublemaker is best known for his Axe the Carbon Tax campaign and his legal disputes with the Ontario PC party. In other words, he is a nonentity in a race which will almost certainly come down to the two leading candidates: Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that Karahalios is relying on name-calling to draw attention to his otherwise lamentable campaign. Last weekend, Karahalios’s team distributed an email attacking O’Toole and accusing O’Toole’s volunteer campaign co-chair of advocating for the implementation of Sharia law in Canada.

Karahalios’s decision to attack O’Toole co-chair Walied Soliman was not just desperate and inappropriate, but also bizarre. For context, Soliman is a long-time party activist and fundraiser. He is widely liked and respected. Further, not only is he chair of the Canadian arm of Norton Rose Fulbright, one of the largest and most successful law firms in the world, he has served as their global chair as well.

Soliman has consistently been ranked as one of the country’s top lawyers, serves on the board of Toronto’s SickKids Hospital Foundation, and just months ago was recognized by the United Nations Association in Canada as its 2019 Global Citizen Laureate. His accolades speak for themselves, as does his long record of generosity and service.

But that’s beside the point.

Karahalios’s xenophobic attack is a reminder of the unfortunate reality that even with a reputation like Soliman’s, Canadian Muslims face uniquely vicious scrutiny for their faith.

I say his record is beside the point because it simply shouldn’t matter how successful or charitable an individual is. Like every other Canadian — Jewish, Christian, atheist or otherwise — their belief (or lack thereof) should be a matter for them, their family and their community. It most certainly should not be a political football to be lobbed in order to undercut the legitimacy of an opponent’s campaign.

In a country like Canada, which prides itself on the secularism of its public sphere, we cannot lose sight of the lived experience of those who face prejudice for their faith. Even as other barometers of social progress like the status of women and acceptance of homosexuality have moved in the right direction, religious tolerance remains a work-in-progress.

It’s easy to forget that just a few decades ago, some of Canada’s largest cities were essentially segregated along lines of faith: Catholics lived in certain neighbourhoods, while Protestant and Jewish families lived elsewhere. While that reality has changed, attitudes toward religious diversity can still be problematic.

Think of Quebec’s Bill 21, which essentially bans all religious symbols from the public sector. Not only does it send a frightening message to Muslims and other religious groups, it sows the potential for social discord.

Consider the example of a veiled woman boarding public transit. Thanks to the specifics of the law, a bus driver or transit employee is now entitled to ask her to verify her identity by removing her covering. Beyond the humiliating nature of such a request, it goes against the principle of individual liberty that a public employee should be empowered to discriminate based on someone’s clothing or religious observance.

At a time when Canadians are as divided as ever along lines of geography, class and political affiliation, it’s incumbent on our leaders to face down divisive language about religion and faith, loudly and definitively condemning nonsense from the likes of Jim Karahalios.

As with the homophobic views of Richard Décarie, I look forward to Karahalios’s realization that his opinions will find no home in the Conservative party or in Canada at all, for that matter. With two weeks to go until the next leadership race qualification deadline of March 25, with a bit of luck he will not have to wait very long to learn his lesson.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

The spread of COVID-19 has revealed an epidemic of mistrust

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, March 8, 2020. 

As the latest coronavirus outbreaks have reached us at home, Canadians’ concern has morphed into a growing hysteria. The virus will, no doubt, have some long and lingering effects on our economy and tragic consequences for some of our elderly and most vulnerable populations.

But in the grand scheme of things, the panic is unwarranted. While every Canadian should be careful to protect themselves and their families, the end of times this is not. COVID-19, like the other coronaviruses that came before it, will pass.

Here in Ontario, we are arguably more prepared than ever, thanks to the experience of the 2003 SARS outbreak. Our ministries of health — federal and provincial — have learned tough lessons from that episode, particularly regarding the breakdowns in communication which marred an effective response.

What’s more, thankfully, we in Canada also have the benefit of governments at every level who understand that a health crisis should be managed by scientists and experts, not politicians.

That said, while we can be confident in our governments’ response, the COVID-19 issue has revealed a larger problem: the epidemic of mistrust Canadians have in their public institutions. Over the past 30 years, there has been an observable decline in our collective confidence in institutions like government, “big business,” news media and democracy at large.

This trend is not unique to Canada but rather a problem throughout the developed world. Thirty years ago, 41 per cent of Americans trusted their federal government, “always or most of the time.” Last year, the same pollster found that number had dropped to 17 per cent. For specific institutions, the numbers are not much better. Over three decades, Americans’ confidence in the presidency and congress declined 34 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively.

Brexit, Donald Trump and other manifestations of populism are all results of this decline. And even in otherwise healthy democracies, this deficit of trust has damning implications in times of crisis; no better evidence of which is the ongoing reaction to the spread of COVID-19.

From the moment China alerted the WHO to cases of an unusual respiratory virus in the Wuhan region, suspicions abounded. After so many lies and half-truths to the world about even the smallest things, the Chinese government has made it impossible for anyone to trust them. So, when Beijing deployed a stream of apparatchiks to assure us that everything possible was being done to contain the virus, skepticism was the default response.

Iran, the country with the highest reported coronavirus death rate, has stubbornly refused to share information and delayed crucial action to manage the outbreak. What’s worse, recent events like the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 have eradicated Iranians’ trust in their leadership, and in turn their willingness to listen to the advice of health agencies and ministries.

In the West, our response to the crisis has been hampered by mistrust, as well. President Trump has done his best to “own” the crisis, appointing Mike Pence as the White House’s coronavirus czar and making an appearance in the press briefing room, which has been dormant since July.

But for all his best intentions — questionable as they are — the president’s actions have only served to stoke distrust and paranoia. On Wednesday night, Trump went so far as to suggest that the virus is a Democrat “hoax,” cooked up to hurt his chances for reelection. What does it say when the U.S. president questions the authenticity of an epidemic that has already claimed the lives of 12 of his fellow citizens?

In times like these, the rot of skepticism and mistrust can prove fatal.

Reading the National Advisory Committee’s report on SARS and public health, I was struck by the language that riddles the section on “systemic deficiencies” in Canada’s response.

Chief among these deficiencies were the absence of protocols, uncertainties about data ownership, inadequate capacity for investigation, lack of coordination and weak links between health stakeholders. Each of these factors is marked by a failure of communication, exacerbated by a culture of mistrust, delegitimized institutions and general paranoia.

How frightening then that, such is the time in which we are living, when we most need to trust, we find that we just can’t.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

Ontario Liberals are missing a crucial opportunity on road to renewal

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, March 1, 2020. 

Two political debates in two countries, What a striking study in contrasts.

The first was the Democratic debate in Las Vegas. I wrote last week how Bloomberg’s entrance to the ring has revitalized the primary race, and how his first debate was about worthy of Vegas. Americans, it seems, agreed. The broadcast smashed ratings records with 19.7 million viewers, more than watched the Grammys or Golden Globes.

The second was the Ontario Liberal leadership “debate” on TVO – though I use the term loosely for it was really more like a kabuki performance of a debate. On both stages stood six candidates, but beyond that the two events could not have been more different.

The reason the OLP debate was such a farce is that it was over before it started.

By debate night, Steven Del Duca already had the race sewn up. Earlier this month, it was announced that he had accumulated an insurmountable lead of 62.5 per cent of delegates.

In the shadow of a national election, railway blockades and COVID-19 stories, the race that will lead to this coronation was generally a tepid and uninspiring affair, one now destined to end in a sad, forgotten convention centre when Liberals convene on March 7.

For a party deep in the wilderness and arguably in the grips of an identity crisis, a coronation is neither productive nor helpful. Sure, the Democratic primary looks messy, but at least it’s a real contest of real ideas. Is the Democratic Party a party of the left that will champion expensive and ambitious social programs? Or is it a party of the centre that will offer a home to disaffected Republicans?

The Ontario Liberals missed an important, perhaps even critical, opportunity on the road to renewal by avoiding a similar clash of visons and ideas. By falling in line, the Liberals have elected to carry on the legacy of the previous government, in which Del Duca served, most memorably as Minister of Transportation.

What many missed is the prize just might be worth winning after all. For a broke party without even official status, the Liberals were polling as high as 33 per cent in mid-January, narrowly besting the sitting government. If they could get the party’s act together – a tall but not impossible order — the next leader stands a chance of becoming premier. And yet the race failed to attract any of the rumoured heavyweights, so here we are.

Already, the PC party has been conducting focus groups about their presumptive challenger. These groups were reported to have been inconclusive. “Nobody knew who the hell he was,” as one source summed it up to the Star. That may very well be the appeal. Either way, the Liberals are now preparing to anoint a blank slate.

But there are termites in the Liberal house. When a pollster asked voters which party they would vote for on a generic ballot, the Liberals beat the PCs by six points. But when they asked the same question with leaders’ names attached, Del Duca’s Liberals lost to Doug Ford’s PCs – by seven points.

While it’s early days, and that’s only a single poll, the results of Thursday’s byelections were instructive. That said, it seems clear Ontario voters are not exactly in the grip of Del Duca-mania.

With the OLP race now a foregone conclusion, I have watched with interest as Bernie Sanders has pulled ahead in the Democratic primary. His rise has caused much consternation among the party’s establishment, who worry he may well become their Jeremy Corbyn – a progressive albatross around the necks of candidates all the way down the ballot.

In truth, there’s a strong case to be made for Bernie’s electability. In head-to-head national polling Sanders consistently tops Trump by a small but meaningful margin.

And besides, imagine if the Democrats had conducted their race with the same attitude as the OLP: They would have nominated former vice-president Joe Biden and sleepwalked into a second Trump term.

It seems Democrats remember the dangers of their 2016 coronation. Time will tell if the Liberal one works out any better.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt

Mike Bloomberg has woken up a sleepy primary contest

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, February 23, 2020. 

In his 1913 book, “Essays in Rebellion,” British journalist Henry Nevinson illustrated an issue facing the Atlantic fishing trade.

The problem: when shipped in tanks overseas, cod tended to be “lethargic, torpid … prone to inactivity, content to lie in comfort … rapidly deteriorating in their flesh.” The solution, devised by an enterprising fisherman, was to insert one catfish into each tank, ensuring that each cod came to market “firm, brisk, and wholesome … for the catfish is the demon of the deep, and keeps things lively.”

Nevinson thus introduced the concept of the catfish as a stimulating, corrective presence that forces its neighbouring creatures out of their inertia. Over a hundred years later, the term “catfish” has become a popular expression for social media users who, while pretending on the internet to be someone they are not, play the same kind of role.

Watching the Democratic primary debate this week in Nevada, it became clear that former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is, himself, a catfish. Setting aside the unflattering comparison to Nevinson’s “demon of the deep,” it now looks like Bloomberg’s greatest impact as a candidate will be in his capacity to jolt his competitors out of their lethargy. He may not come out on top — characterizing his debate performance as disappointing would be kind — but his candidacy will cull the field and refocus the race.

For months, the democratic primary has felt underwhelming. Initially framed as a coronation of former vice-president Joe Biden, surprises along the way have culminated in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ firm dominance in most national polls. Virtually all pundits agree that position will erode as the field narrows to just one or two centrist alternatives to the Vermont senator’s staunch socialism.

But the reality is, aside from Sanders’ proposed political revolution, none of the candidates has really caught anyone’s imagination. Biden seems to have fallen asleep at the wheel, Pete Buttigieg has yet to garner any serious support from crucial minority groups and Elizabeth Warren’s emphasis on substance over style has left voters wondering whether she is up for a general election fight.

But all of that changed on Wednesday night.

For the first time, each candidate seemed energized, on their toes and unafraid to throw punches. Like a catfish among the cod, Bloomberg forced his stage mates to eschew their friendly demeanour and act like the competitors they are.

Warren came for Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar swung at Mayor Pete and perhaps most significantly, Sanders learned to defend himself from exactly the kinds of attacks that he would face from Donald Trump.

Responding to Sanders’ ardent defence of democratic socialism, Bloomberg noted how “wonderful” the U.S. must be, considering “the best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses.”

Sanders was taken aback. The senator is used to attacks for his socialist views but has yet to experience any serious challenge to the working class bona fides, which have defined his entire political identity. His flustered response shows just how unfamiliar Bloomberg’s tactic was. No doubt the Sanders camp was taking notes.

The similarities between Bloomberg and Trump — both are defined by their wealth, brashness and New York City demeanour — make the former mayor a perfect debate proxy for the president. And no one took better advantage of this than Warren, who spent most of the debate attacking Bloomberg.

After months of Warren’s restrained focus on policy solutions, many have wondered whether she could put up the fight necessary to take down Trump. Last week, she answered that question, explicitly comparing Bloomberg to Trump and tearing down Bloomberg’s “history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women and of supporting racist policies.”

For the first time, voters could see just how Warren scraps. She stuck to her principles, was articulate and proved that she can fight back without getting covered in mud.

In reality, the rumble in Nevada may not make a difference: Bloomberg’s $400 million (U.S.) ad buy will reach millions more Americans than the debate did. Regardless, the catfish has been set loose in the tank.

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

Populism is alive and well in Canada

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, February 16, 2020. 

As a surge of populism sweeps the world, many Canadian commentators climb onto their high horses, pat themselves on the back and declare Canada immune to this short-sighted selfishness.

Problem is, if you look below the surface, that notion simply doesn’t hold water.

Canada is not unaffected by the factors that are driving this shift: the forces of globalization, increasing inequality, a shrinking middle class, automation and disruptive technology.

For many, these forces are not theoretical ones. They impact their everyday lives. One needs to think no further than the almost 400,000 Canadian households who depend on a cashier for part of their family income. Self check out will soon see them checked out of work.

The business pages of the past month alone tell a bleak story: Papyrus will shut all its Canadian stores; athleticwear retailer Bench will do the same. After 50 years, Mega Bloks is closing its 580-person factory in Montreal. Bombardier is being dismantled in front of our eyes. And analysts anticipate worse losses to come.

As the economic landscape has changed, so too has the political. In every provincial election since 2018, the winner has been a conservative or centre-right government. This trend has led many to conclude that the electorate has shifted to the right.

That thinking is mistaken. Instead, what we have seen is a shift toward populism.

Conventional wisdom has taken hold that says these impressive provincial majority victories represent an endorsement of a right-wing agenda.

But the proof is in the polling and it suggests otherwise. A December 2019 poll found 69 per cent of Ontarians disapproved of Premier Doug Ford, while 50 per cent had a negative view of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Trouble came for both when they began to pursue right-wing, fiscally conservative policies.

In contrast, Quebec Premier François Legault did not suffer the same fate. He has tied his political fortunes to Bill 21, a brazenly populist piece of legislation that also happens to be supported by nine out of ten Quebecers.

Circumstances have driven Canadians to become increasingly focused on themselves and their pocketbooks. Who can blame them? It is difficult to be generous to those who come after you, if you are faring worse than those who came before you.

It’s not that Canadians have given up on grand projects of social cohesion or nation-building. It’s simply that they feel they cannot afford them. So rather than elect Kenney to get spending under control at Alberta Health Services, he was elected to build a pipeline and deliver the jobs that would come with it.

In Ontario, voters turned to Doug Ford because of an affordability crisis, expecting him to deal with unsustainable increases to the cost of living, from hydro prices to gas prices to taxes.

This populist turn is constraining the ability of politicians to dream big and undertake nation-building projects. No sane prime minister today would undertake the GST; none would pursue a pioneering free-trade agreement. Just as short-termism has taken hold on Bay Street, it has taken hold in corridors of power.

As politicians come to embrace populist sentiment, corporate Canada should expect provincial or federal governments to act against them. So, as it has gone elsewhere in the world, where populist governments are in power in some of the world’s largest democracies, it will go here.

In India, Narendra Modi was first embraced by business, but he has since brought policies effectively skimming 60 per cent off corporate profits. In Indonesia, President Widodo has nationalized large swaths of the economy. President Trump has both waged a trade war and subsidized the farmers who are its primary victim.

The trend is not constrained to right-wing politicians: New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is young, liberal, and populist. Mexico’s new president is raffling off the presidential plane in an act of working-class solidarity.

Already, our federal government has come for the pharmaceutical industry with mandated reductions in the price of patented medicines; they have come for the telecommunications industry with a pledge to cut the price of phone bills by 25 per cent despite lacking any policy mechanism to effect such a change.

Canada is not immune to populism. In fact, we may already find ourselves firmly in its grip.

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

The perils and power of digital media

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, February 9, 2020. 

If there is one lesson we learned this week, it is that digital media continues to shape politics in ways we still do not understand.

Since its inception, strategists and pundits have treated digital media as a tool: a way of better understanding constituents and expanding reach to them. The reality is very different. Over the past decade, social media platforms and the internet more broadly have fundamentally changed not just the channels we use but the very nature of politics itself.

Consider Donald Trump. It’s not just that social media is the cornerstone of his political strategy, it has defined him as an entity. Without Twitter and Facebook, President Trump simply would not exist. Firstly, Trump’s base of supporters are creatures of social media, which has enveloped them in an echo chamber, validating their feeling that the rest of America has lost its mind, not them. When Trump told them the same thing, that validation was made concrete.

But Trump is not just a master of social media, he is a product of it. From the moment he descended his golden escalator and announced his candidacy, his every impulse has been characterized by a desire to stir controversy and generate clickbait. His obsession with crowd sizes and viewer ratings reflects a metric of success familiar to any social media user: impressions and views.

Trump’s State of the Union address this week was tailor-made for the digital age. Realizing that very few Americans would watch the entire address, Trump opted instead to create made-for-Twitter vignettes to be shared around the world.

Trump was not content with merely calling out the travails of “Lenny Skutniks,” as the invited guests of each president since Reagan are known. Instead, the leader of the free world channelled Oprah and, in real time, handed out a school-voucher scholarship, reunited a military family and awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom to guests in the crowd. Each dramatic moment fit perfectly into a 90-second clip for digital consumption.

And just as the digital age has shaped our politicians, it has shaped the process of politics, too. Chaos descended on the Iowa Democratic primary this week as malfunctions with a newly implemented reporting app wrought havoc on the process. The historic success of the Buttigieg and Sanders campaigns was thus overshadowed by concerns about the accuracy and consistency of the results.

Trump surrogates were quick to point to Iowa as evidence that Democrats are not ready to run a country. But the Iowa debacle also spoke volumes about a reality of the 2020 campaign: Republicans’ vast dominance over Democrats’ in digital capacity. Even compared to President Obama’s formidable digital operation, the Trump team is miles ahead.

For context, between his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Obama grew his digital database by roughly 55 per cent. Trump’s team has already grown theirs by 150 per cent and are aiming for list growth closer to 300 per cent. They have invested four times more in social media than television. The reason is simple: in today’s world, digital strategy is the fundamental building block of campaign strategy.

Canadian political parties have been slower in taking this lesson to heart. In 2016, the Trudeau Liberals significantly outspent other parties’ social media advertising. That said, conservative platforms like Canada Proud and Rebel Media have changed the digital playing field, reaching millions of Canadians with highly engaging content.

In the current CPC leadership race, Erin O’Toole’s campaign has already signalled its belief in the importance of social media. In late January, the campaign rolled out a sizable Facebook ad buy.

But just as digital media can provide momentum, it can also kneecap an otherwise solid campaign. Peter MacKay’s campaign was criticized this week for an aggressive Twitter ad that mocked the prime minister’s penchant for yoga classes and spa visits. The reality is that most Canadians have no appetite for the kind of social media attacks that have become the norm in America.

And therein lies the rub. Just as I wrote last week about the lack of consensus when it comes to online grieving, we are now experiencing the same lack of consensus in online campaigning.

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



Searching for a new consensus on grief in the digital age

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, February 2, 2020. 

Once upon a time, grief was something private. We took pains never to speak ill of the dead. When a person of some profile died, an obituary might appear in the morning paper. Early acts of public grieving were proper and decorous. One’s legacy was given time and space to settle, and the reckoning, if there was to be a reckoning, came later.

As with so much in life, social media is changing the way to handle death — how we mourn the loss of public figures, think, talk, and remember the recently passed. There are still obituaries, but a telling new sub-genre has emerged. You might call it the Honest Reckoning. It’s an immediate and public grappling with the good and the bad — acknowledgments of family, work, and achievement, but also addiction, cruelty, and suicide.

When it happens online, the messy work of grieving — the sausage-making of legacy — has been accelerated and democratized.

As with so much else, it now plays out as much on our Facebook timelines as in the newspapers. There have always been hired wailers, but lately, grief has became even more performative, imbued with this new power. The meaning of a public figure’s life and death is determined today by the collective and often corrective outpouring on social media, which chases a celebrity’s death like a shadow.

So it was that I followed with interest this past week’s first tragic and unexpected celebrity death — the death not of Kobe Bryant, but Mr. Peanut, the monocled, 104-year-old Planters Peanuts mascot who was killed off in a commercial set to air during the Super Bowl.

As with all the best Super Bowl ad campaigns, this one went viral. In the 30-second spot, Mr. Peanut is ejected from the Nutmobile and sacrifices himself to save his fellow passengers. The ad was the first of two parts. A second one was planned featuring Mr. Peanut’s funeral.

The multimillion dollar campaign was developed by VaynerMedia for Kraft Heinz, which owns Planters. The agency says it was inspired by the reaction online to the death of an Avengers superhero. “We started talking about how the internet reacts when someone dies,” explained the campaign’s creator. “When Iron Man died, we saw an incredible reaction on Twitter and on social media. It’s such a strange phenomenon.”

Strange, but also potent: the ad has already garnered more than 6.5 million views on YouTube, having been shared by devoted fans of Mr. Peanut, mourning the loss of the beloved legume. The genius of the campaign was that it went viral by encouraging the public to mockingly enact these now-familiar rituals of grief.

But the very dynamic that Kraft Heinz relied upon to amplify their campaign is ultimately what undermined it. After the real-life death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, Planters paused the advertisements. Social media users had begun complaining about the disorienting sensation of scrolling through posts that mixed real grief for Bryant with mock grief for Mr. Peanut.

In deciding to hit pause, Kraft Heinz is playing by the old rules, but by no means does everyone feel so obliged.

This week, in the aftermath of Bryant’s death, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was suspended for tweeting a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article detailing the sexual assault allegations made against the NBA great. She was reinstated two days later, which is precisely how long it took her newsroom bosses to realize what was already obvious to anyone living online: The adage against speaking ill of the dead has long since been discarded.

Or has it? Even as the Post’s own media critic condemned the suspension, tens of thousands of fans and mourners online hurled abuse and death threats at Sonmez.

Clearly, some people still felt strongly that it was disrespectful to raise the topic of sexual assault so soon; just as others felt it was disrespectful to carry on pretending to mourn Mr. Peanut while actually mourning Mr. Bryant.

If the morbid events of the past week have demonstrated one thing, it’s that — whether we are grieving or aggrieved, beat reporter or obituary writer, brand manager or Twitter troll — we remain far from a new consensus about death.

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