Adapting to Virtual Lobby Days on Parliament Hill

2020 has been a whirlwind – and Parliament was no exception. At the beginning of the pandemic, Members were flying back to their constituencies, minister’s offices were deserted, and no one knew how long this was going to last. The landscape for government relations professionals was also constantly changing. In person meetings were being cancelled, clients were moving to crisis mode, and asks were changing.

With the one-year mark on the horizon, we are seeing a new normal for government relations professionals. Virtual meetings with elected officials are no longer a foreign concept and zoom meetings are consuming hours per a day. Amid this, there has been much debate around the idea of lobby days, and if a virtual event would even compare.

Lobby days are an important advocacy opportunity for organizations during the Parliamentary session. They are pivotal moments to ensure clients asks are articulated directly to the relevant elected officials. Ensight has been preparing clients for virtual meetings since the onset of the pandemic and recently wrapped up a virtual lobby week for a client and we wanted to share some best practices with you.

The first difference we noticed is how generous Members of Parliament have been with their time. Members are no longer rushing between committees and unscheduled votes. They, too are stationed in front of their computers and are able to accommodate and reschedule faster.

Without these rigid timelines, we’ve been able to expand our client’s lobby day into a lobby week. Keep in mind that since organizations no longer needed to fly delegates into Ottawa, we had the flexibility to organize meetings within a five-day period. This also gave options for members to choose from when they wanted to have a meeting.

The pros are substantial, but it is important to consider the role of a government relations professional. Without a playbook, the transition can be difficult, but here are some tips we learned by hosting a successful virtual lobby week:

  1. Unlimited Zoom: First, use an unlimited zoom account when setting up meetings. Although this may seem like an obvious recommendation, it is very common for participants to go over a scheduled 30-minute meeting to get more information or to just keep a pleasant conversation going. It is important to note that multiple zoom accounts might be needed to allow for more scheduled meetings around popular times, particularly if you have multiple separate attendees.
  2. Confirm: Next, it is important to confirm zoom links with members’ offices a few days before the meeting. Wires may get crossed when dealing with twenty-plus zoom links on various accounts. This is also an opportunity to remind staffers of the upcoming meeting and for them to flag if their member would need to reschedule.
  3. Be Prepared: Confirming meetings is one thing, but delegates need to be well prepared on how to advocate in a virtual forum. Holding a pre-briefing with delegates is useful to ensure everyone knows their role. Advise them that these meetings may be less personable, but they need to stay engaged. Show them how to use zoom and how to take screenshots so they can post photos on their social media accounts. Although meetings are virtual, and timelines less strict, work in Parliament is constantly evolving, and rescheduling meetings should be expected. A quick tip is to organize meetings and zoom links on a master sheet, so delegates have information on hand to substitute in on calls as needed.

While a few glitches are to be expected, ultimately lobby days, virtual or not, are supposed to be fun! Reshaping advocacy plans to an online forum does not have to be a daunting task, especially since delegates are still able to have genuine conversations with MPs. Having unlimited zoom accounts, organizing and confirming meeting links, and prepping delegates to lobby virtually are just some tips. At the end of the day, if delegates are ready to engage with a simple message, there should be no doubts that a virtual lobby day can deliver real results.

 

Nivitha Jeyakumar, Consultant at Ensight Canada

Hindsight is 2020: A Walk Through Canadian Pandemic Politics

2020 was a year that Canada and the world won’t soon forget. A year marked by economic and political upheaval, by protests, blockades, resignations, scandals, and all the trappings of a truly historic year. With lots of attention paid to our neighbours down south, and the status of the coronavirus worldwide, it’s important to remind Canadians of the political events that transpired in 2020, how they shaped the government’s COVID-19 and economic response, and what they could mean for the next federal election and beyond.

In the 2019 election campaign, the Liberals were still focused on repairing the brand damage done to their party and leader after four years of governing in a majority. With slips ups and scandals like the Aga Khan vacation, Mr. Trudeau’s over-the-top trip to India, the SNC Lavalin affair, and the blackface scandal, the 2015 bloom had come off the Liberal-red rose. Despite these problems, the Liberals won the 2019 election, and the government had high hopes of getting to work on their key platform priorities, like more money for middle class families, real action to address climate change, and support for Indigenous peoples.

After scraping by with a minority government on the strength of these priorities, and before COVID came to Canada, the government already had their hands full with other pressing issues, namely the Wet’suwet’en rail blockades, the ratification of the Canada-US-Mexico Agreement, and the controversial Teck Frontier Mine decision. Despite how many of us must feel, all these events happened only one year ago, and not ten.

No doubt the three main platform planks are still policy directions the Liberals hold dear, but action on these files, even the evergreen urgency of climate change, have fallen to second, third, and fourth places behind the pandemic health and economic responses. So how has the Liberal government handled the political environment surrounding the single greatest challenge of their time in office?

That depends on when you ask.

In January 2020, early in the global pandemic, when news and case numbers from Wuhan, China showed the coronavirus to be a serious health risk, the Canadian government was watching closely, but would not be derailed from the full plate they already had. Staying on message is job number one for any political actor in government, and so trepidation over addressing an emerging disease half a world away is simply good politics, if perhaps bad policy. The opposition Conservatives would later seize upon this trepidation to accuse the government of inaction at a critical time, to some effect. The government would instead focus time and energy on assuring Canadians that the risk to our country was low. Whether this was true at the time or just wishful thinking, that claim would soon be proven terribly wrong.

As February wore on, more information trickled out of China, and discussions began about the importance of handwashing, limiting contacts, and the possibility of requiring masks in public, which the government and Canadian public health officials opposed at the time. This was perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of the response, as international medical data had shown for years that, despite some possible issues with masking a population that wasn’t used to it, masks are effective at preventing disease spread. The political calculation was a tough one for the government: do we buck the trend of most western countries and force everyone to mask-up, skyrocketing public demand for PPE and creating resentment for this sudden and personal change, or do we wait and see? Choosing to acknowledge a crisis is tough, as any crisis communications expert will tell you, but prompt acknowledgement gives way to quick action, which was sorely lacking in the early pandemic response.

By early March, 114 countries had announced domestic cases of COVID-19, and on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. Within five days, the government had issued guidance on travelling to and from Canada and began the process of rolling out aid. Another two days, and the border with the US would be closed. By this point, Wuhan was reporting no new cases, while western countries were just beginning to grapple with the new normal.

By the end of March, in the thick of the pandemic and first lockdown, the government’s badly needed $240 billion aid package, the Prime Minister’s regular TV addresses, and the new investments put into vaccine and treatment research had all brought Mr. Trudeau’s popularity to a new high, particularly when compared to the lacklustre US response. Canadians broadly supported the Prime Minster’s direction, and even deficit-focused political observers found themselves unable or unwilling to effectively push back on huge deficit spending for the sake of health and the economy. The Liberals were clearly in their political element, spending big dollars and being commended for doing so – a political trend that would not last.

Moving into the spring, the WHO would finally recommend wearing face masks in public, nearly a month after declaring a pandemic. Canadians would mostly follow this advice, leading to two of the Liberals’ biggest political challenges in the spring, namely procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and mask controversies. To their credit, the government’s messaging was clear and so consistent as to be monotonous: Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay at home, keep your distance. The government’s procurement ability, however, was seriously strained, with concerns arising over the quantities of PPE stockpiled in the National Emergency Stockpile System, leading to easy jabs from the Conservative opposition over resource mismanagement. All the complexities of procuring PPE in a highly competitive global environment are inconsequential when faced with the stark reality that Canada did not have enough PPE, and it was damaging the government’s reputation.

Procurement was not the only headache for Mr. Trudeau. His party was also being accused of intentionally preventing Parliament from sitting, presumably to prevent scrutiny of their pandemic response. However, on April 20, Parliament returned as promised, with committees studying various aspects of the response. Regular political battles would return over these and other topics, including the government’s contact tracing app, availability of rapid testing, border closures, supporting supply chains, and the beginning of the federal vaccine procurement strategy. None of these topics would immediately prove to be political winners for the opposition, with the exception of now-Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner’s relentless pursuit of transparency on rapid testing.

By the start of summer, Canada would have crested the first wave, and Canadians were feeling like they had beaten the virus. So much so that the warm weather and faux confidence would entice many in population-dense areas to congregate at beaches and shopping malls, parties and bars, all without adequate contact tracing and sometimes even masks or social distancing. This, along with the relaxing of public health measures and the reopening of non-essential businesses, would accelerate the second wave of the pandemic. Politically, all Canadian governments were in another tight spot. With high levels of unemployment, bankruptcies, and business closures on top of COVID cases and deaths, governments needed to strike a balance between keeping the economy open just enough to prevent total collapse, while not seriously worsening public health outcomes. In short, an impossible task, which was made worse by the lack of coordination between the federal and provincial governments. Indeed, the fact that no single organization was responsible for the entirety of the country’s pandemic response led to serious data gaps, procurement challenges, funding issues, regulatory confusion, and simply mixed messaging on COVID rules. The federal nature of our country, although a symbol of representative democracy, was now working against us.

As we moved further into the summer, Canadian politics were relatively quiet. Parliament was sitting only occasionally, and the federal government was focused on maintaining the then-low case numbers of COVID-19. Suddenly, in late June, the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) was announced, plunging the government into what would become known as the WE Charity scandal. After months of partisan wrangling, Mr. Trudeau’s third ethics scandal ultimately caused a major dent in Liberal Party support. This was not helped by Mr. Trudeau’s prorogation of Parliament in August, which many political observers believed was done to prevent committees from investigating the CSSG further. The parallels between this Prime Minister and his predecessor were not lost on keen political watchers. Politically, the ramifications were significant. The Prime Minister was being investigated for failing to recuse himself from the CSSG decision, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau was forced to resign for accepting free travel from WE, to be replaced by Minister-of-Everything Chrystia Freeland, ushering in a new tone and a more leftward swing to government fiscal policy. Nowhere is that clearer than the $100 billion over three years promised in the Fall Economic Statement (FES), another astronomical sum on top of already-significant pandemic spending. With the first wave behind us, politicians started in with criticism of the government’s response, with questions on possible rising interest rates, the sustainability of government deficit financing, and missing support for left-behind sectors like airlines and oil and gas. Even a pandemic can only halt regular politics for so long.

In the fall, and heading into the holiday season, Canada saw schools reopen and, perhaps consequentially, the emergence of the fated second wave of COVID. As the world got colder, Canadians began to hibernate, staying in as much to stay warm as to stay safe. After robust debate and discussion on the FES, Canadian politics took a long winter nap as lockdowns took effect. The government unveiled the first of the new Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines in an attempt to showcase the government’s procurement ability, but with the hindsight of the vaccine procurement problems we’re seeing today, it risks being remembered as another example of the “all style, no substance” mode of governing the Liberals have often been accused of.

Now, with a forecast election on the horizon, and with the Liberals’ re-election hopes pinned to a safe, effective, and thorough vaccine rollout by September, Canadian politics are on a knife-edge. The country is waiting to see how many vaccines enter Canada, and if the Liberals can keep their key promise. Domestic and international observers are criticizing the Liberals for drawing vaccine doses from the COVAX initiative intended for developed countries. Opposition parties are watching and waiting, not wanting to be the one to trigger an election in a pandemic, while also trying to keep pressure on the government. The Liberals, for their part, are hoping vaccines come in on schedule, or at least that they can call, run, and win an election before a possible reckoning in the fall. With only 7 months to vaccinate 36 million Canadians, and with thousands of cases arising per day nationwide, the stakes have never been this high.

COVID-19 was the defining issue for the Liberal government this past year, but it may end up being their undoing. Pandemics are an example of the very thing humankind is worst equipped to handle: an invisible, deadly enemy that requires quick, decisive, and most importantly, communal action. Most Canadians understand this and may even sympathize with a government forced to react quickly and forgive some of the mistakes when they are at the ballot box, but any party that says they could have done this better is probably wrong. The Liberals have spent big money, money that has been heralded by most Canadians as the right move for the moment. But government coffers are not infinite, and neither is the lifespan of a minority government. As the Liberals near the typical 18-month lifetime of a minority in Canada, with the vaccine rollout stuck in first gear and an ambitious agenda planned for their hopeful post-COVID majority, will Canadians see fit to re-elect Justin Trudeau and a Liberal Government? Or will Canadians tire of the endless spending and seek change? One thing is for sure, if the vaccine distribution plan continues to falter, Conservative Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole may just have the opening he’s been waiting for.

 

Tyler Downey, Consultant at Ensight Canada

Biden is the man to lead a divided government and country

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

On Friday afternoon, it looked increasingly likely that Joseph R. Biden Jr. would secure the 270 electoral votes needed to earn the title of president-elect. It also became clear he wouldn’t be given the tools to drive sweeping change anywhere other than at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

True, Biden has probably sent Trump packing from the White House, but the same cannot be said for their respective parties.

As things stood on Friday, the Democrats failed miserably in their attempts to dispatch Republicans from other branches and orders of government. The Republicans held the Senate. Gained five seats in the House. Held five and flipped one statehouse. And Trump increased his own raw vote by nearly seven million votes.

The result? Mitch McConnell and other congressional Republicans will argue that Joe Biden has no mandate from the American people; that he has no right to move the country in a different direction. However, they are wrong — Biden did earn a personal mandate.

Biden secured the support of some 74 million Americans. And he did it without stoking the politics of division and anger that have come to define politics across the United States.

True, millions of voters endorsed Donald Trump’s vision of America. But the clear message from the suburban voters, among other groups, was a loud rebuke of Trump’s four years in office.

Although Trump and his party will try desperately to undermine the legitimacy of Biden’s win and the legitimacy of their own political system along the way, the writing is on the wall. Come rain or shine, Joe Biden will most likely be sworn into office on January 20, 2021 alongside a Democratic house majority and a Senate whose balance of power will be decided in two January run-off elections.

But what will Biden be able to achieve, assuming he becomes president? Well, if Senator Mitch McConnell is to be believed, very little. Sources close to McConnell have signalled that the majority leader intends to restrict Biden’s independence in selecting his cabinet. Never mind the fact that presidents are generally given wide leeway in choosing their team — it is shameful that McConnell could not even wait for the final results before stirring up exactly the divisive obstructionism that is his calling card.

McConnell’s comments highlight the emerging dynamic that will define Biden’s potential presidency: the impossible task of uniting a country while leading a divided government. As if his task was not already challenging enough, this reality will seriously frustrate Biden’s ability to unite its progressive and moderate wings and deliver for his party.

Unless Biden can take decisive action on issues like climate change and racial justice, progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders will resist attempts to bring them into the fold. Without their support, it’s hard to see how the president-elect can protect his moderate allies in the Democratic leadership. As it is, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are vulnerable to a leadership challenge and, in Schumer’s case, a 2022 primary challenge from oh, say, a popular, young, progressive congresswoman from Queens.

Mending those divisions will not be an easy task. But in a peculiar way, Biden is uniquely — perhaps singularly — suited to the job. He served 37 years in the Senate, plus another eight years as Senate president while Obama’s VP. He knows not only McConnell, but moderate Republicans like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, whose support he will need to achieve policy wins.

More importantly, Biden is determined to govern. Unlike Trump, whose four years in the presidency constituted a rolling, never-ending political campaign, Biden has a platform for his term. He has a determination to remind Americans that politics is about policy, not polls. He has ideas for rebuilding the nation and for improving lives in states — both blue and red — across the country.

And most importantly, the way things currently look he will have a personal mandate, one underpinned by the largest popular vote in American history and the first rout of an incumbent president since 1992.

So, we’ll have to wait to hear from Republican leaders and final vote tallies to know more about the fate of Biden’s policy objectives. But for now, the only thing they should be saying is, “congratulations, Mr. President-elect.”

What a relief that would be.

 

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

Trump did not invent the ‘imperial presidency,’ but he has debased it

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

Lately I have been reminded of a conversation I had with myself, around this time back in 2016. Perhaps, I thought, Donald Trump would prove so ill-suited to the job of president and the task of governing that effectively nothing would be accomplished on his watch. Maybe — apart from four years of squandered potential — no permanent damage would be done; we could hope that all might return to normal.

Wow, was I wrong. In Tuesday’s genuinely pivotal election, Trump may or may not be given a second term (another lesson of 2016: predictions are a mug’s game and you’ll find none in this column.) But whether he stays or goes, he has changed the institution of the presidency itself — to say nothing of Congress, the Republican Party, the media, or any of the other, adjacent institutions whose presences were intended to act as checks and balances.

With the benefit of hindsight, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that this would happen when Trump assumed the mantle of the “imperial presidency,” to borrow a phrase from the “historian of power” Arthur Schlesinger.

The imperial presidency is a perfect description of the office that Trump inherited, because the president is not only the elected leader of the nation and the head of government, but also the head of state.

This is the reason, for instance, that President Woodrow Wilson (as the only head of state present) had a higher chair than the Allied prime ministers at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

At home, Americans have long held a reverential view of the officeholder. They rise when he enters the room; they serenade him with “Hail to the Chief” and interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to bring breaking news of his every utterance.

Since the accession of President Trump, the other major institutions of American political life have struggled in response to the rot he has brought to the top. The Republican Party, for example, has opted for near-complete capitulation. At its convention, the Grand Old Party put forward no platform whatsoever. Oh, except for one promise: continued fealty to Donald Trump.

Sadly, there are no more mavericks in the senatorial caucus. Those that are left trip over each other in a mad scramble to win favour from the leader, which undermines any possibility of real, independent congressional oversight.

Most of the mainstream media, on the other hand, have chosen the path of moral reckoning. After granting candidate Trump nearly unlimited airtime in 2016 by carrying his rallies live, the fourth estate has course-corrected. It is no longer a given that cable news will carry a presidential rally or Rose Garden ceremony live. The old journalistic commitment to both-sides-ism has given way to outlets with explicitly partisan views. And through these partisan lenses has emerged a sudden vogue for “fact-checking” and “news analysis.”

In the span of a single term, Trump has so debased the institution of the presidency, it is now an open question whether it might ever be restored to its former place in American society.

Is it a task for Joe Biden in a “Jimmy Carter post-Watergate” sort of way? Will it take just one term to forget how bad things were and return to so-called normal?

Trump, after all, was not the first Imperial President. He has merely been the worst. But, in fairness, he is part of a line of succession which makes it safe to assume that worse still will follow him. With each new power assumed by his predecessors, Democrats and Republicans alike, the stakes were raised higher and higher, until a cataclysmic event like Trump was inevitable.

Thinking back to that day four years ago and breaking my own rule against predictions, perhaps Americans will finally see the dangers of concentrating too much power in a single executive officeholder. If there is a silver lining to the otherwise disastrous Trump presidency, it may be this realization.

If so, it is one we Canadians could certainly understand. Because no matter how much power might accrue in the Prime Minister’s Office, ultimately, we have a different system — one that deliberately separates the head of state from the head of government, and whose checks and balances seem very much alive and well, if the past week in Parliament is any indication.

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

A Woman’s Place is in the House (of Commons)

Monday’s by-elections achieved a significant milestone – it will be the first time in history that Canada will have 100 female Members of Parliament elected to the House of Commons.

Although this is grounds for celebration, there is still much work to do.

Old political wisdom would say that the reason women are not running for office is because they have kids, or because Ottawa is too far away. The real reason for the lack of women is due to years of systemic gender bias which has disproportionately benefited men while restraining the participation of women in electoral politics. This can be seen through a party’s willingness to select and support female candidates, and through significant financial barriers.

A key hurdle that women have faced for generations is that parties are still not putting forward enough female candidates, which leads to the lack of women being nominated. It has been proven that once nominated, women tend to win elections at similar rates to men. Clearly then, the issue is not with the electorate, but with the parties themselves.

However, once nominated, women are more likely than men to find themselves running in hard to win ridings instead of in party strongholds. This creates the unfortunate cycle of men who have been elected to continue to run again and again – which actively shrinks spaces for women. This leads to a lack of representation and off puts other women from running as they believe these spaces do not belong to them.

Finally, financial restraints are another key reason for the lack of elected women. The CBC found that women received less money from their party and riding associations to fund their campaign than men. On average, across all parties, women received $35,838 in campaign funds compared to $40,162 for men. This is coupled with the perception of socioeconomic gender gaps that women do not have as many large donors and may not be as comfortable in asking for money.

The gender imbalance in Canada has become more apparent over time, but changes are in place throughout party positions and policy. Justin Trudeau committed to maintaining a gender balanced Cabinet, implemented the use of Gender Based Analysis in federal budgets, and started the Invite Her to Run initiative to encourage women to run. This shift was also on display in the Conservative party in the most recent federal election where they fielded more women candidates than ever before.

100 women in the House of Commons is worthy of celebration but we must remember that with 238 male Members of Parliament, that it only represents 30%. We can and must do better.

Next year will mark 100 years since the first woman was elected to the House of Commons and with a potential election on the horizon, here’s hoping that records continue to be broken.

 

Nivitha Jeyakumar is a Consultant at Ensight Canada.

After an unseasonably cooperative summer, the chill of realpolitik is setting in

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 25, 2020.

As the warmth of summer has faded and the chill of fall set in, we have felt a similar change in temperature in legislatures across Canada.

From the House of Commons to Queen’s Park to the Alberta Legislative Assembly and the Quebec National Assembly. From provincial capitals to city halls, the tone of pandemic politics has shifted significantly. After seven months of relatively cordial, pragmatic and cooperative policy making, it seems the time for playing “patty cake” across the aisle has passed. Welcome back to reality.

Since March, the story of Canada’s pandemic response has been one of unprecedented teamwork between different parties and levels of government. To be sure, there have been tensions in Ottawa but for the most part, the Liberals have been able to rely on NDP and Green support to pass their COVID-19 agenda. But let’s not assign either party too many brownie points. Neither could afford the consequences of not supporting the government: an election.

However, this week marked a definite turn toward a more confrontational style of governing by the prime minister and his cabinet. Facing the prospect of new Opposition-led oversight efforts, Trudeau and Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez launched a game of high-stakes chicken.

By daring opposition parties to trigger an election, the Liberals have shown they are not afraid to play hardball to avoid legislative paralysis-by-investigation. In so doing, they’ve also made it clear they don’t intend to water down their pandemic plans to please their opponents in the House. So until the NDP and the Greens decide they have had enough, we can expect the partisan brawling to get even messier. So long, sunny ways.

Across the country, a similar process is taking place as political leaders eschew COVID cooperation in favour of closing ranks and turning on their would-be partners.

In British Columbia, Premier John Horgan was quick to turn on the BC Greens who have supported his government since 2017. Not only did the premier renege on his pledge to avoid an early trip to the polls, he’s also laid blame for the election on the other parties. Whether you view Horgan’s decision as necessary pragmatism or opportunistic overreach, his motive is clear: to exploit a pandemic opportunity to sideline his opponents and implement his agenda, his way.

And then there is the most improbable of COVID-induced friendships: the Ontario Conservatives and the federal Liberals. Last spring, Premier Ford and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland made the strangest of bedfellows. Ford called Freeland “amazing.” She said, “he’s my therapist.” Now, even that relationship is being tested.

After the Liberals’ throne speech, Ford expressed his disappointment at Ottawa’s reluctance to invest its “fair share” in healthcare. The premier has also accused Ottawa of being too lax with quarantine restrictions and has repeatedly criticized Health Canada for delays in testing across the province.

The awkwardness of this post-honeymoon phase crystallized in a joint announcement by the prime minister and Premier Ford, when the two leaders were asked what had changed in their previously rocky relationship. Ever the realist, Ford’s assessment of the political reality was very straightforward: “A big chunk of them that voted for the prime minister, voted for me. People expect us to work together.”

Ford’s right: Ontarians want him to work with the prime minister and with his favourability numbers sliding, the premier would be wise to listen. But that cooperation will become more difficult as the second wave worsens and provincial and federal priorities diverge.

And as we saw with Ford’s initial disagreements over indoor dining with Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, it is one thing to mend over political disagreements and coalesce around a scientific consensus. It is another thing entirely to find common ground when the nuances in different public health advice leave room for disagreement.

For all of us, pandemic fatigue will grow worse as the days grow shorter. For our politicians, they will grow fatigued with getting along with their natural opponents.

The problem is, this COVID thing isn’t over. We all have to put our big kid pants on, and keep our fatigue in check.

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

Plastics Politics: Single-use, or Here to Stay?

Last week, the federal government unveiled the six single-use plastic items they will be labelling as toxic: plastic grocery bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics. The Liberals chose these six items based on criteria including the presence of a viable replacement and damage to the environment. Clearly, something must be done about plastic pollution, but many critics oppose the drastic “toxic” label, particularly during a pandemic that has pushed plastic PPE use way up. Whether it’s the right or wrong move from a policy perspective, it’s clearly a political winner for the Liberals. This is just the beginning of plastics politics in Canada.

The Liberal, NDP, and Green voter bases have been clamouring for action, any action, on plastics for years now, marking a strong vote pickup opportunity for the Liberals. For a centre-left party that has absolutely zero chance of winning over the more conservative west, the Liberals’ best gambit is to tack left and eat up the progressive voters who themselves are hungry for action on climate change. Although policy analysts might contend that the toxic label will have knock-on effects down the road, action on climate change has been so delayed that voters will take whatever wins they can get.

Progressive voters are not the only ones who are watching the plastics file. Business concerns about the viability of their own plastics products are high, and they do register with the Liberals. Offering only six items to start with, instead of outright banning all single-use plastics, is part of that classic Liberal incrementalist strategy. Simultaneously keeping the confidence of both business and progressives is what this government has tried to do since the start, but make no mistake, even an incrementalist policy will progress over time. No where is that clearer than in the government’s own plastics policy process.

To come up with their shortlist of the sinful six, the Liberals first created a plastics long-list, showcasing all the plastics products they would consider for a ban, before whittling it down based on the above criteria. Many items were omitted from the ban due to their usefulness, lack of available replacement, and even a lack of political will. In time, new products will appear to eclipse the old plastics ones, and political viability will grow for others. This long-list gives us a roadmap for how the Liberal government, if they remain in power, will pursue their plastics long-game.

Will the plastics you produce or use end up banned? Check the long-list. If it’s on there, then now is the best time to start thinking about government relations strategies to see how you can get in on the ground floor on plastics. Connecting with the opposition will be key as well since the plastics file will hang over successive governments for years to come, but remember, Conservatives will have a tough time with voters if they undo a plastics ban. A smart government relations strategy is one that accepts that plastics bans are coming, are here for the long-term, and works to put your interests in front of government.

 

Tyler Downey is an Associate Consultant at Ensight Canada

Supreme court nominations have become a blood sport — our own top court shows they need not be

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 18, 2020.

It seems a safe bet that, if one were to survey Canadians, more of them would be able to identify Amy Coney Barrett than any one of the judges who sit on the Supreme Court of Canada.

This may well be attributable to the fact that Barrett has, in many ways, become just another act in the ongoing circus that is the Trump administration.

But more than that, Barrett’s nomination marks the latest milestone in the politicization of the U.S. Supreme Court, this time around, driving Democrats to seriously consider such radical options as “court-packing” by expanding the number of sitting justices.

While it’s true that we in Canada haven’t allowed our own Supreme Court nominations to become poisoned by partisan politics, the instinct to construe our own court in the image of the United States runs strong.

The media searches constantly for a simple, some would say simplistic, frame to understand the court’s dynamic, similar to the left-right, Republican-Democrat divide that characterizes the U.S., as with the “Gang of Five” of the 1990s or the Laskin-Spence-Dickson “LSD Connection” of the 1970s.

These efforts have foundered, however, because the Supreme Court of Canada, thankfully, continues to defy the reductive allure of partisanship. Why is that?

Well, let us begin with what Canada gets right. For starters, there is the nomination process itself, which in 2016, was formalized as an independent advisory panel.

Even before this reform, nominations were characterized by the relative absence of scandal. Even the messier instances, such as the Nadon Affair in 2013, tend to turn on narrow, technical grounds, such as regional representation.

No one in Canada is “Borked,” in the manner of Ronald Reagan’s 1982 nominee whose confirmation was the first to be destroyed in the partisan crucible of the Senate. We have yet, on a relative basis, to let our process be hijacked by zero-sum partisans.

But perhaps the most influential difference of all, in Canada, there is a mandated retirement age of 75. Had the late Justice Ginsburg served on the Canadian bench, she would have been forced out about a decade ago.

Instead, in the United States, federal judges can sit for life, due to a long-standing interpretation of Article III of their Constitution, which stipulates that justices “shall hold their offices during good behaviour.” Intended to reduce partisanship by insulating justices from the need to face voters or seek later employment, it has in fact made matters worse as lifespans have lengthened, raising the stakes of an open seat.

All that said, our own justice system is far from perfect. One need look no further than a pair of recent Supreme Court of Canada rulings that have escaped popular notice.

In a ruling in the case of R. v. Chouan, the Supreme Court found that the Trudeau Liberals’ changes to the jury selection process were constitutional. The Liberals had eliminated peremptory challenges of potential jurors, ostensibly in response to anti-Indigenous discrimination.

But the matter is not so cut-and-dry, and numerous legal groups representing racialized minorities had begged the court not to go along with the proposed changes, positing that they would have the opposite effect, making it instead harder to toss racists from the jury pool.

Another recent ruling, the case of Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier, found the two men did not deserve a new trial, despite the improper selection of their jury.

Taken together, these rulings highlight the potential for a slow erosion of our own justice system. Many defence lawyers have rightful concerns, but the media and the public in this country remain fixated on the Barrett nomination instead.

It is a shame for these very real dangers to Canadians to be lost or overlooked in favour of the seductive tribalism that brought us such unhelpful memes as “Notorious RBG.” There may be much amiss in the American system of justice — but in resting on our laurels, we risk ignoring concerning developments in our own. Our justice system is imperfect, and it requires constant vigilance, not just cheap armchair moralizing.

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

Toxic Trump is also a superspreader of hate

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, October 11, 2020.

Stop the presses: on Thursday, the FBI charges 13 American citizens for conspiring in a domestic terrorist plot to kidnap and potentially murder Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. They then wanted to start a civil war fuelled by white supremacy and discontent with lockdown restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’d begin with an assault on the state capital. Overwhelm the legislature. Attack police officers and, if the mission failed, invade Whitmer’s residence and kill the duly elected governor of the 10th largest state.

But the presses hardly stopped at all. And that’s because what should have been a “man bites dog” story was nothing more than another day in Donald Trump’s America.

The sad fact is, since the Trump-inspired rise of hate groups and “militias,” the term “domestic terrorism” is thrown around like confetti.

It is not at all random that this kind of depraved action follows in the wake of Trump’s insistent refusal to condemn white supremacy and his ratcheting up violent rhetoric about his political enemies.

Shortly after the attack was revealed to Americans, the president and his proxy, Jason Miller, wait for it, actually criticized Whitmer in the same terms as her would-be kidnappers: for the action she had taken to address the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan.

Are you kidding me?

After all, Whitmer is hardly alone. Over the past six months, every level and every stripe of government in Canada and the United States has made difficult policy decisions in the name of public health.

Conservatives, New Democrats, Liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike have taken responsible but unpopular decisions to stem the chaos of the pandemic. All of which makes them easy targets of fringe groups across the country.

But what the hell is going on when the president of the United States publicly disparages a public servant hours after a potential attempt on her life? What kind of a Kafkaesque world are we living in when the president cannot condemn the planned attack for what it is: domestic terrorism, planned and quite nearly perpetrated on American soil.

Well, the time has come to bell the cat. David Gergen, the man who has been a counsellor to more presidents than any other said it first: there is a madman in the White House.

Full of vitriol and heavy steroids, the diminished emperor king is left to careen around the halls of the White House; halls left empty because of the virus he spread.

The president has become the super-spreader of hate and in that regard, the verdict is in. Donald Trump has emboldened dangerous elements of America’s far right and in doing so he has become the very root of the problem.

We’ve seen it again and again — from his response to Charlottesville to his repeated and pathetic claims that he “doesn’t know” about people like David Duke and the Proud Boys. Well, he does know. And what’s more, he knows exactly how to speak to them in code.

Countless Americans have had their participation in public life threatened by the president’s cronies-by-proxy. For example, in Brooklyn on Wednesday, before the attack on Whitmer had been revealed, a mob of Orthodox Jewish Trump supporters attacked journalist Jacob Kornbluh.

In our world, with information coming at us daily from every direction, it has become easy to discount political language as window-dressing, disingenuous, perhaps mendacious.

Trump himself has spent five years reminding us that politicians are all crooked — except for him of course — and that the words they use are not worth the paper they’re printed on.

This is the greatest deception of all. Words matter. In politics as in everyday life, they have the power to galvanize us, to inspire us and to drive us toward despair. They move markets and set the direction for cultural change.

In Trump’s case, they also reinforce the notion of an America where this kind of action, fuelled by racist hatred and political division, is acceptable. It is not acceptable.

Enough.

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

Your Pre-Election Check List: How Should Businesses Engage Before the Next Election?

The current federal Liberal minority government is just shy of its one-year anniversary in power. It was one year ago, on October 21, 2019, that Canadians sent Justin Trudeau back to Parliament, albeit in a minority situation. And what a year it has turned out to be. Despite early rumours of an imminent election, it looks like Canadians will not be headed to the polls this fall. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has supported this government’s most recent Speech from the Throne and has left the door open to supporting this government even longer, provided they continue to ‘help Canadians’. On the other side of the coin is the historic evidence that suggests that minority governments only last 18 months in this country. That window comes up in March/April, conveniently around a projected March 2021 federal budget, which begs the question: Will there be a spring election?

Elections lead to uncertainty for many Canadian businesses. Once an election is called, government work shuts down for an extended period while the public service enters caretaker mode and it takes time as election results come in and the new cabinet is formed. Companies also can’t advocate for regulatory change or seek funding during a writ period, which slows the pace of business. For some companies who have aligned their priorities with the government of the day, they run the risk of a new government doing a 180-degree turn. So, as we mark the one-year anniversary of this government and hold to the conventional wisdom that the next election could be in as little as six months, what should businesses in Canada be doing right now?

First, businesses should make sure they review the language in the Speech to look for areas of alignment between federal priorities and business objectives. The Speech from the Throne sets the direction for the federal government you will see over the next 6 months. This is both the government’s blueprint of what they want to accomplish and their road map to re-election. If you like what you see, then you’re in luck, but if your core businesses issues aren’t represented, then you will be facing an uphill battle to introduce anything new into the equation.

Second, say goodbye to long-term policy wins. Governments want to be re-elected and this government will be looking for quick wins in the next six months to show as proof points on the campaign trail that they can get things done. This current session has only just begun, but already two new bills – one to establish a National Truth and Reconciliation Day and the other to ban conversion therapy – have been introduced. Both are symbolic but important bills to pass and have the added benefit of broad public support, making them relatively easy to pass into law and giving the government the checkmark they want to show the electorate on the campaign trail. This is not to say that your organization can’t continue to work with government on long-term issues, but recognize that the government is thinking in the short term and anything you can deliver that gives them a win – and more importantly, votes – in the next election will be looked at more favourably.

Third, businesses should assess their relationships with the opposition parties. While the outcome of the election is impossible to forecast at this point, it’s simply prudent to examine all of your options and be ready for any eventuality. Often, businesses are afraid of being seen as partisan or picking sides, but you don’t have to take that approach. The key is education and building relationships. Any business should take the posture of believing it’s best to invest in all relationships across the aisle. Today’s backbencher can be tomorrow’s cabinet Minister and opposition parties like being thought about before they gain power and will remember long-lasting friendships.

Finally, although the list could go on much longer, take stock of your relationships with the public service. They will largely remain in their positions regardless of the outcomes of the next election. Invest in these relationships for the long term. The political party may be the head of government, but the public servants are the neck. If it has been a while since you’ve connected with them, set up a meeting to review your priorities and refresh their memories on the issues you care about.

Predicting elections are always a fool’s errand, but these principles are ones that can help make sure your organization is ready to weather any election result.

 

Matt Triemstra is the Vice-President & General Manager of Ensight Canada. He has over 15 years of experience consulting and working for Conservative Members of Parliament and the Conservative Resource Group on Parliament Hill.