The increasing power of stirring imagery and moral virtuosity

Only days into 2019 and we have already been sharply reminded of just how much the optics and messages of politics have changed in the last 10 years.

These developments, of course, don’t represent a total change from the past. Image and narrative have long been central to politics. Pictures have built or destroyed the careers of many a politician.

A number of famous examples spring to mind. Richard Nixon taking a so-called casual stroll on the beach uncomfortably wearing a business suit and oxfords. Bob Stanfield helplessly fumbling a thrown football. Michael Dukakis seated in an armoured tank. And Gilles Duceppe wearing a hairnet.

Each was, obviously, an embarrassing and unfortunate photo. But more than that, each created a feeling more powerful than words alone could explain. Although Nixon’s often uncomfortable personality, Stanfield’s fustiness, Dukakis’s aristocratic air and Duceppe’s inability to be authentic had been commented on before, the photos concretely demonstrated and framed those foibles in a way that mere words never could.

But what has changed is the ease and intensity of distribution, the glare of attention, and the resulting focus on narrative over substance.

Our increasingly divided political tribes combined with our drastically shortened attention span gave rise to a class of politicians that focus on stirring imagery, short statements and moral virtuosity. This does, of course, make for exciting politics. It is also the only way that politicians can hope to compete with traditional and social media landscapes as frenetic as the ones that exist now.

Simply put, a long-form white paper regarding pension reform doesn’t stand a chance of competing for clicks against a video of a dramatic kitten rescue on Facebook.

Perhaps the best example of this is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s interview on 60 Minutes this week. Ocasio-Cortez is an impressive, articulate and engaging new member of Congress. Just 29 years old, she has been an inspirational figure for the left wing of the Democratic Party. She unseated a long-time, long-in-the-tooth incumbent, who stood for much of what the establishment has long been selling.

Young, telegenic, and entirely unafraid of bold statements that challenge the norm, she has struck a chord with many.

Ocasio-Cortez has mastered the art of the narrative and image. Staging sit-ins of Nancy Pelosi’s office in favour of green climate initiatives, posing for photos with other rabble-rousing new members of Congress and making videos dancing outside of her new office are all attention-grabbing methods that have generated never mind barrels of ink about her but zillions of clicks.

The freshman congresswoman, who would normally struggle for years before gaining even an ounce of power or media attention, has a social media-driven profile that is grossly disproportionate to her actual level of influence in Congress.

But Ocasio-Cortez inexperience has also shone through. When she was interviewed by Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes, an opportunity that any freshman member of Congress would kill for, she was pressed on her numerous errors.

Her response should be considered alarming for all. “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” It was revealing.

That sentiment is something President Trump would agree with. Instead of carefully considering facts and ideas, the President has embraced virtue signalling and the construction of narratives.

Quickly and easily reinforcing the impulses of his base (and of hers) has proven monumentally important. Their certitude gets people clicking over the kitten rescue videos. As a result, they get attention and create influence.

But just as easily, those clicks can undermine a serious message. Following the president’s Oval Office address this week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a press conference that condemned Trump and dismantled his arguments in great detail.

Their words generated little attention. Instead, the image of the two staring sternly into the camera became a comedic meme that flourished across social media, late-time TV, and eventually on to the news networks.

Perhaps before they spoke they should have remembered that this is the era of 280 characters, not 280 pages.

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

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, January 13, 2019)

Donald Trump’s continued outsized influence on Canada

Donald Trump sucks the oxygen out of every political maneuver and debate in the United States. Now, it’s possible he might do the same in Canada, as we head towards a federal election on October 21st, just over nine months from now.

Certainly the American President was a dominant figure in our politics for much of 2018. Not quite as dominant as in the United States, but an ominous one here nonetheless. And most of that had to deal with the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

After branding NAFTA “the worst trade deal ever signed,” at Trump’s behest Canada and Mexico were locked in a thirteen month renegotiation with the United States of the twenty-five year old deal. After all the Trumpian threats to tear up the agreement and slapping duties of twenty-five per cent on Canadian steel exports and ten per cent on Canadian aluminum exports and other gratuitous threats, what emerged from the negotiations was a renamed treaty called the United States, Mexico, Canada Agreement that is not too much different from the original NAFTA. Dairy Farmers have to give up a small portion of their protected market in Canada, and the steel and aluminum duties remain as trade irritants still waiting to be removed, but aside from those problems the NAFTA talks turned out a lot better than they might have.

While the new agreement still has to be ratified by each of the three countries, there was a palpable sign of relief when the negotiations concluded. But that wasn’t the end of the Trump influence in Canada.

In his fiscal update on November 21st last fall, Finance Minister Bill Morneau did not wait for the budget this coming spring to announce major corporate tax cuts. Instead, responding to pressure from the business community to stay competitive with tax cuts enacted at the end if 2017 by Trump and the Republicans in Washinton, Morneau announced $16.5 billion in corprorate tax cuts‎ allowing business write-offs on manufacturing and clean energy equipment.

This foregone revenue will increase the deficit over the next few years, but because of Trump the Liberal Government had little choice.‎ Whether Morneau follows that up with further tax cuts this spring remains to be seen. But whatever Trump does next will likely have a bearing on it.

With NAFTA more or less out of the way, Trump is now engaged in a major trade war with China. And that is having an impact on Canada too. First a trade war between the world’s two biggest economies ‎catches everyone in the cross fire. The shock to stock markets around the world, including Canada in December, is but one example of that.

But Canada is being effected in another way as well.‎ Canada is now caught up in a dispute between Beijing and Washington over the detention of a high placed executive with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

Meng Wanzhou is out on bail in Vancouver pending an extradition hearing that could see her transferred to the United States to face fraud and other charges in connection with American sanctions on Iran. Under the extradition treaty between Canada and the U.S., she was arrested after she deplaned in Vancouver and is now out on bail pending a hearing to see if she will be sent on to the U.S.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese Government is furious. But instead of taking out its anger on the Americans, who are big and can strike back, it is taking its anger out on Canada. It is demanding the release of Meng Wanzhou and in retaliation, has detained two Canadian citizens in China.‎

Canada says it is acting according to international law and the extradition treaty it has‎ the U.S.  But China doesn’t care for that explanation, and the waters were muddied when President Trump implied that the Meng situation was really part of his negotiating strategy in the trade war with China.

At the moment the situation is at a stand-off. ‎Meng Wanzhou is out on bail but detained in Vancouver. Two Canadians are detained in China, and Donald Trump is waging his trade war.

How this China chapter plays out ‎has the possibility of becoming a major political issue in Canada, with Donald Trump right in the middle of it.

Whether he thinks about it or not, so far the American President is managing to reach across the Canada – U.S. Border and have an outsized influence on issues that will help shape the Canadian election. And hold on to your hat, he is probably not done yet. There are still nine and a half months to go.

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

Bridging the New Great Divide: Reaching the ‘Persuadables’

While social media have had incalculable positive effects on democracy and human rights, the corruption of social media content and exploitation of personal and aggregate data has adversely impacted democracy on two levels: the propagation of misrepresentational content meant to influence behaviour and the doubt cast on democracy as a system as a result of that propaganda. The 2019 Canadian federal election will be a test of one country’s response to the problem.

John Delacourt 

The story is familiar now. The role Facebook (and, to some degree, Twitter) played in the United States presidential campaign of 2016 has been plumbed by a number of investigations. This includes an ongoing study by the House ethics committee in Ottawa on how users’ information is “harvested” by entities seeking to influence the next Canadian federal campaign. In the U.S., it is clear that foreign actors had access to user information that allowed them to micro-target activation campaigns, stoking fears on such topics as irregular migration and “Benghazi-gate”. 

Could such a misinformation campaign happen here in Canada? At least not yet, says one pollster. In August of this year, Abacus Data Chairman Bruce Anderson provided Canadians with a reassuring perspective on the battle to come. Basing his argument on up-to-the-minute polling numbers, he asserted that about 27 per cent of the electorate, or approximately 8 million Canadians, had yet to make up their minds about which party to vote for in 2019. “Let’s call those people the persuadables,” he wrote. “These are the true battleground voters”—those who could presumably decide the result of the next election. Contrary to the partisan tone and fierce rhetoric that characterize political dialogue on social media, these persuadables are far more centrist. “Canadians are generally suspicious of hardened ideology,” Anderson said. “Across Canada, 89 per cent of Canadians believe the country works best ‘by finding middle ground and compromise,’ and 92 per cent of persuadables feel this way.”

It is in the nature of polling and no fault of the commentator, but Anderson’s snapshot of the electorate offers a static rather than dynamic take on the influence of social media on voter intentions. For a forceful riposte to Anderson’s argument, a few minutes of former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s opening speech from his Munk Debate appearance in November would do nicely. Bannon spoke to the resolution that the “Future of Western Politics is Populist, Not Liberal.” Bannon asserts there is no longer a centre – or a centrist perspective—that will hold in the U.S., given the “filter bubbles” social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have created—echo chambers that repeat and reinforce partisan positions. 

Conservatives and progressives communicate within parallel media ecosystems; it is increasingly rare for citizens to identify as centrist or persuadable by either side, given how microtargeted content creates visceral, measurable spikes in the emotions that override rational argument. In the course of Bannon’s debate with Canadian-born American conservative political commentator David Frum, what emerged from Bannon’s speechifying was a stark vision of a divided America, where the working class have been let down by the “global elite.” This is the one per cent who have created the real divide: less a racially or culturally determined demographic than one marked by a widening gulf between have and have-not. Populism, from either the left or right, is for Bannon the only kind of politics that can thrive when such a polarized dialogue is the new normal.

Whether Bannon’s perspective is shaped by the political reality south of the 49th parallel, the conditions for a turn from the centre are emerging here. The precariousness of the economic well-being of “the middle class and those hoping to join it” wisely remains an abiding concern for the Trudeau government. There are 19 million Canadians on Facebook—more than 14 million checking their news feeds every day. This makes us the most active users of the platform in the world. The influencers and validators of public sentiment are firmly established on Twitter as well, with some MPs such as Michelle Rempel and Maxime Bernier—who are more than willing to torque up the populist rhetoric—commanding significant numbers of followers. 

What may be pivotal in this turn from the centre is the continuing erosion of trust in public institutions. Edelman’s most recent Trust Barometer revealed that only 46 per cent of the general public here in Canada say they trust their government (as opposed to 61 per cent of the “informed public”). And while 60 per cent are worried about fake news being weaponized for the election campaign, 54 per cent are disengaged with news, consuming broadcast and print stories on a less-than-weekly basis. When distrust, cynicism and ultimate disengagement with politics prevail, they create a vacuum where the forces of disinformation can rush in. These are more than forces of disruption; as the U.S. example affirms, they are forces of persuasion.

The response from the Trudeau government to these forces has been encouraging, with the passing of Bill C-76, the Elections Modernization Act. As Joan Bryden of Canadian Press reports, it “represents a first stab at grappling with the spectre of social media being abused by bad actors—foreign or domestic—to manipulate election results, exacerbate societal divisions, amplify hate messages or instill distrust in the electoral system.” Measures include banning foreign entities from funding advocacy groups for partisan campaigns, and requiring online platforms to establish a registry of all digital advertisements placed by political parties or third parties during the pre-writ and writ periods (with the added stipulation that the registry remain visible to the public for two years). 

The Opposition, led by Andrew Scheer, seems more sanguine about the threat of foreign actors to the next election. Hamish Marshall, Scheer’s 2019 campaign manager, told a crowd of party faithful at the last Manning Conference that he’s a “huge fan” of building detailed psychological profiles of Canadian voters and targeting them with personalized political messages. The current business model for Facebook is based on such data remaining accessible. Data and dollars remain the highest priorities for any party heading into an election season, so Marshall can hardly be faulted for using the former to drive the latter.

Yet the ground—and public opinion around the world—has begun to shift on these tactics. Around the time Anderson’s firm, Abacus Data, were polling and discovering the number of persuadables remaining in Canada, a significant development in the story of Facebook’s influence on voters occurred in the UK. Sharon White, the Chief Executive of Ofcom, the U.K.’s communications regulator, published an editorial in the Times of London calling for regulatory oversight, much in the way the CRTC here in Canada regulates broadcasters. “The argument for independent regulatory oversight of [large online players] has never been stronger,” White wrote, stating that “in practice, this would place much greater scrutiny on how effectively the online platforms respond to harmful content to protect consumers, with powers for a regulator to enforce standards, and act if these are not met.” 

Soon after, Daniel Bernhard, the Executive Director of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, affirmed its support for the NDP’s proposed slate of policy measures, “that would go a long way toward restoring Canada’s democratic sovereignty over these foreign corporations and their shareholders.” These included the requirement for social media platforms to “collect sales taxes like everybody else, pay corporate taxes like everybody else, and follow the same laws and rules as everybody else.” The “advertising tax loophole” that allows “Canadian advertisers who do business with media companies, like Google and Facebook, to claim $1.3 billion in tax benefits that are supposed to be reserved for companies placing ads with Canadian media, which enrich our society and secure our democracy,” would be closed. All of these measures would make it a lot harder (and more economically prohibitive) for foreign actors to repeat what occurred south of the border in 2016.

The NDP’s recommendations may lack the necessary political capital to be implemented in the short term; however, when federal legislators, regardless of political stripe, realize they may have practical tools to halt the erosion of accountable democracies and democratic processes, there may be no better place to propose them than in election platforms for 2019. The centre may still hold, with truth and accountability as its lynchpins, and that may emerge as the most definitive advancement for Canadian politics in the next federal campaign.  

John Delacourt, Vice President of Ensight, is a former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau and the author of two books, including a mystery novel. 

(Published in Policy Magazine January 2019)

Michelle Obama sets stellar example for future change-makers

As Michelle Obama embarks on her global book tour, connecting with audiences in promotion of her first book Becoming, she is proving herself to be a powerful political force for the causes she chooses to support.

While she has been clear that she has no intention to run for public office herself, she has turned her attention to sharing her story and strongly advocating for issues she believes in deeply. Her book lays out a blueprint for leadership that reminds us that one does not need their name on a ballot in order to initiate lasting change.

The stories woven together in Becoming are moving. She speaks frankly about her family in the context of the Great Migration and their settlement in Chicago as well as her father’s health challenges with Multiple Sclerosis. Throughout, Michelle is careful with her words, understanding the power of her voice and the responsibility that comes with using it.

Authentic leadership is a difficult balance to strike. In her book she describes her approach to staying true to her voice, “When it came to speaking publicly about anything or anyone in the political sphere: I said only what I believed and what I absolutely felt.”

By way of her leadership example, she’s building a generation of leaders daring to address big and small issues plaguing communities both locally and globally. In today’s international political climate, this is especially necessary.

As First Lady, she set out to achieve measurable progress on issues she cared about. She took a thoughtful and personal approach to choosing her projects and messages, and ensured that her team applied a forward-thinking lens to her work.

She went to great effort to combat child obesity in America with a methodically rolled out Let’s Move! Campaign and gardening initiatives. Her legacy also includes an emphasis on unlocking the potential of girls internationally through education with her “Let Girls Learn” program.

With these, and with each initiative she took on over the years, her leadership style has been collaborative. Recognizing that a goal is best achieved by way of coalition — she brought together government, business, and influencers of all backgrounds in support of measurable results toward healthier communities. That is politics at it’s best.

As she opens this new chapter in her journey, no longer walking the same tightrope that came with being married to the sitting president of the United States, she is expanding her reach. With two million copies of her book sold within the first few weeks of publication, it’s clear her chosen messages are spreading widely.

In her book she went on to speak openly about maternal health and her own challenges faced while growing her family. This was a significant move in shifting the culture of how communities communicate and women are supported through miscarriage and in vitro fertilization.

Importantly, she recognizes the need to counter the leadership example being set by the current sitting president. In her book she is open about her disappointment in his actions, and not just the impact on the safety of her own family, but also the bar set for political discourse as a whole. She states, “In the end, the standards of decency were simply lowered in order to make room for the candidate’s voice.”

I have great faith in the generation of leaders being shaped by Michelle’s example internationally. Her emphasis on prioritizing health and wellness, the importance of nurturing genuine friendships in politics, and being patient with oneself while becoming your best self are all lessons that will strengthen the collective impact of the leaders she is inspiring.

Even though she’s chosen not to run for office, the impact her efforts make on the political issues she touches is immense. She reminds us to speak with conviction. It’s clear this is the opening of a new and exciting chapter for Michelle, and I’m looking forward to seeing what insights and advocacy efforts lay ahead.

And for the millions of change-makers she is inspiring around the globe, many of whom are women and girls, I look forward to the limitless potential being unlocked as each grows more comfortable taking her seat at the table, and using her authentic voice.

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

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, December 9, 2018) 

Presidential successors put Bush Sr. in a new light

Many believe that, in politics, your successor is your legacy.

Consider the straight-as-an-arrow Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter after the Machiavellian Nixon years.

Or the steady, competent, experienced John Tory after the roller coaster term of Rob Ford.

Or more recently, Doug Ford’s approach to smaller government focused resolutely on every day family affordability after more than a decade of big, bold Liberal schemes.

But the state funeral of the 41st president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, earlier this week also reminded us that a politician’s successors can also create new frames, and new prisms, with which to view their predecessor.

As every living president, along with not just the entire American political establishment but leaders from around the world — even Charles, the future King of England was there — jammed into the magnificent Washington Cathedral there was an elephant jammed in with them.

And it wasn’t the elephant that serves as the GOP’s mascot and logo.

Rather, it was the astonishing divide between the 41st President and the 45th, President Donald Trump.

As our own former prime minister Brian Mulroney opened his tribute, Trump could be seen slumping in his pew, his arms aggressively crossed on his chest, and a surl on his lips. But he was alone.

The rest of the congregation was right with Mulroney as he offered, “I believe it will be said no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled and more honourable than George Herbert Walker Bush.”

Mulroney went on to provide a tour de table of Bush’s accomplishments: The Gulf War, NAFTA, Clean Air Act, leadership that was “distinguished, resolute and brave.”

Others went on to describe the 41st president as the last of the “soldier statesmen,” as one of the last of the “greatest generation.”

And with each accolade, with each remembrance, the difference between George H.W. Bush’s leadership and that of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. became more painfully acute.

The sense of loss of decency in public life became clearer.

And with that how both Americans and the world thought about their former president began to change.

After all, despite all his successes, which were recounted this week, Bush lost the presidency in 1992, after just one term.

A young upstart named Bill Clinton seemed more in tune with the times. He reflected the optimism and freshness that was felt across the country. President Bush, on the other hand, while familiar and reliable — not unlike a panelled station wagon that had served dutifully — was more like yesterday’s news.

But Bush only knew one way to be president and he stood by it. He allowed journalists, historians and pundits to see him as a bumbling patrician.

Incredibly, the New York Times story that came to define his presidency reported Bush had been dumbfounded by a grocery store barcode scanner and didn’t know the price of a quart of milk.

The story, and its implication that he was woefully out of touch, had the ring of truth, and defined Bush for a generation.

But that sentiment dissipated significantly this week, as experts reflected on Bush’s presidency in the wake of his passing.

Instead of being a patrician, the pundits crowed about his gentle nature and impeccable manners. Instead of bumbling on policy, experts wrote of his pragmatism and cautiousness in a world that was teetering on chaos.

Some went so far as to say he was the best one term president since James K. Polk in the 19th century.

Today, Bush’s legacy stands in marked contrast with the one predicted in 1993, after his re-election loss.

By comparison, President Clinton, who had long enjoyed the highest approval ratings in the country, has suffered from historical consideration. His personal behaviour has clouded his policy successes and his approval ratings have dropped significantly.

It turns out how you lead, like how you live your life, actually matters. That what St. Francis taught is right: in consoling we are consoled, in giving we receive, and in pardoning we are pardoned.

And that’s why I don’t think it is random that the Bush family motto is, “et ius illud,” which when translated to English means, “do the right thing.”

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

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, December 9, 2018)  

NDP sputtering as Singh’s sticks to risky strategy

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake,” ranks as one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s most famous quotes.

And it is one that a number of the politicians around Parliament Hill would do well to remember.

Last week, Liberal MP for Brampton East, Raj Grewal, announced he would be resigning his seat.

And just as the Liberal government was coping with an unwelcome and distracting event, rookie NDP leader Jagmeet Singh made a significant strategic mistake.

Singh, who has yet to find traction amongst many New Democrats — not to mention Canadians as a whole — has long been without a seat. His party, which has lost significant momentum from its 2011 high, when it obtained official opposition status for the first time, has been struggling.

The leadership contest to select Singh garnered little media attention. And since then, there have been few policy positions that the party has been able to call their own.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has successfully positioned himself as the leader of the progressive movement, effectively overshadowing any attempts by the NDP to gain credibility on a host of issues. Even when the prime minister stakes out more conservative positions, such as with his vocal support for the development and construction of pipelines, the glow of progressivism doesn’t leave him.

Polling and byelection results reveal a party sputtering among voters. Polls have shown the NDP lagging far behind its rivals, and while many question the reliability of traditional political polling, the party’s results in byelections have done little to show them inaccurate.

Outside of Quebec, its results could at best be described as “middling” — and in Quebec, the epicentre of 2011’s success, the party is so far out of the game that it’s not difficult to imagine Quebec NDP MPs being a distant memory by 2020.

To make matters worse, NDP fundraising is at a recent low. The party, which has always struggled to effectively raise the money it needs to be competitive, has raised a fraction of what the Conservatives and Liberals have quarter after quarter since the last election.

The result? NDP MPs are voting with their feet: a significant chunk of the caucus have announced their plans to not run in the next election under Singh.

Not all of this, of course, is due to the fact their leader does not hold a seat. Similar struggles would not be solved by a place in the House of Commons alone.

But the fact the leader does not have a seat only serves to underscore these challenges, to make them more persuasive and to, more generally, lower morale for the caucus as a whole.

In an effort to combat a narrative that is not only developing but cementing, Singh announced he would run in a byelection in suburban British Columbia. It was a strange choice and an awkward fit: Singh had been an Ontario MPP and had little connection to Burnaby. What’s more, the seat is far from a safe one for his party.

Then, a gift appeared seemingly from nowhere: the Liberal MP who represented the very same seat in the House of Commons that Singh had represented in the Ontario Legislature, stepped down. In a byelection, Singh, a political celebrity in Brampton East and whose brother now represents the riding provincially, would have been a shoo-in.

Inexplicably, Singh declined to take advantage of this near-sure bet and has stubbornly clung to his plan to take on a risky seat; a plan with plenty of downside.

It’s a decision that has long-standing New Democrats gritting their teeth. They wonder, rightly, why Singh is risking his entire political future on a riding that he has no connection to — with no real benefit.

Should Singh lose the byelection, it is almost certain that he will face a very unpleasant uprising. It will provide his internal opponents a tangible example of his lack of judgment and confirm the view he is ill-equipped to take on the Liberals in just over a year.

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

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, December 2, 2018) 

Viola Desmond’s legacy a light that shines on other trailblazers

This week marked the official circulation of Canada’s new $10 bank note highlighting the story of trail-blazing entrepreneur and civil rights activist Viola Desmond.

Desmond was selected in a process that spanned years of public consultation to identify an iconic Canadian woman to be featured on a regularly circulating bank note. Canadians welcomed the concept of widening the net beyond former prime ministers on our currency.

A total of 26,300 submissions were collected in the nomination process, of which 461 qualified. To be considered for a feature on the bank note, nominated candidates were required to have been deceased for a minimum of 25 years.

Following this process, an advisory council identified a 12-person long list, later narrowed to five women. Among the women nominated were authors, artists, athletes, suffragettes, scientists, businesswomen, engineers, politicians and humanitarians — all extraordinary changemakers in their respective fields.

I remember finding myself emotional upon learning that Desmond was selected as the first Canadian woman to be printed on our regularly circulated currency last spring. It came with a sense of pride and belonging that I couldn’t shake.

Desmond valiantly took on Canadian justice systems for the discrimination she experienced in 1946 in a segregated movie theatre, and she dedicated her livelihood to elevating other women entrepreneurs and leaving her community better than she found it. She was the first Canadian to receive a posthumous pardon by the government of Nova Scotia for her appalling treatment. The legacy she left is well deserving of the celebration it is receiving today.

I see in Desmond’s story in the stories of my own family and community members in Southwestern Ontario going back multiple generations — women who quietly worked to transform their communities and endeavoured to make Canadian institutions better for their daughters with little recognition for their tireless efforts.

I saw generations of Black Canadian women in rural and urban communities across the country who fought courageously to break glass ceilings while carrying an additional load combating racism in Canada.

It is thrilling to see a Black woman on the Canadian $10 bill, but we also have a long way to go to ensure Canadian women are earning their fair share of these dollars today. We’ll need continued advocacy aimed at seeing that women of all backgrounds feel the benefits of work being carried out to close the gender pay gap.

Desmond’s character can be seen today in women continuing her tradition of building supportive communities for women entrepreneurs as they seek genuine inclusion. Emily Mills of How She Hustles is a trailblazer in these efforts, blazing her own path changing Canadian institutions for the better, while serving as a prism reflecting light that shines onto her on more Canadian women deserving of recognition.

Mills hopes the circulation of the bill doesn’t only change how we see the past, but rather serves as a catalyst to change how we act in the present, “We don’t have to wait until someone is long gone for us to acknowledge that they stood up for something they believed in.”

I’ve framed my first note, and will be gifting a few for family and friends to cherish over the holidays. I’m also considering ways I can better support organizations and individuals carrying out the spirit of Desmond’s work today.

This includes organizations like Black History Ottawa as they take a leadership role in the delivery of the Connecting the Dots project aimed to connect the rich histories, lived experiences, and intergenerational promising practices of Black Canadians from coast to coast. Within the past year, they’ve visited Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Windsor researching local stories.

There are countless local opportunities for engagement in carrying out Desmond’s legacy today, both in supporting women’s economic empowerment, and challenging Canadian institutions to address systemic racism.

With each exchange of the bill comes a teachable moment, an opportunity to discuss the invaluable contributions and sacrifices made by women and Black women across our great country — and with that a moment of self-reflection to consider how each individual effort can continue to shape our country for the better into the future.

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

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, November 25, 2018)  

Canada’s political leaders must overcome international and internal strife

Those of us who had hoped for a more placid year ahead are likely to be disappointed.

If anything, Canada’s closest allies are facing even more difficult and uncertain times than had been predicted.

Brexit, which by any measure was a monumental task, has grown more complicated and troublesome in recent weeks. Whilst once it seemed that Theresa May’s Conservatives could safely steer the United Kingdom out of the European Union with the support of a united government, that seems a stretch today.

May faces defections and resignations from her own caucus and cabinet on an almost daily basis. The opposition seems unlikely to provide her government cover, and allies in other parties are dropping like flies. No-deal on Brexit seems increasingly likely, as does an election — one that could see Jeremy Corbyn, the radical and divisive leader of the Labour Party, elected Prime Minister.

Stability in the United Kingdom is as hard to see as a polar bear in a blizzard.

The United States is in little better condition. President Trump has battled the media and critics since the beginning of his presidency. When the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, it signalled a whole new phase in the country’s internecine conflict.

It seems inevitable that Nancy Pelosi will take the speaker’s gavel. Under her leadership, the Democrats will formalize the opposition to Trump in a way that hasn’t been possible for two years. The democrats will wield subpoena power, chair committee investigations and erect roadblocks that will frustrate, if not freeze, Trump’s agenda.

The next two years of U.S. politics will largely be an acrimonious battle between branches of government, hindering their ability to move important government initiatives forward in a meaningful way.

This sustained period of international unrest presents challenges for Canada — particularly now that there is an increasing lack of ideological alignment between our provincial and federal governments.

The Trudeau Liberals have ushered in a number of policies that are cheered by progressives but jeered by conservatives. The challenge, much as in the U.S., is that opposition and partisanship are becoming far more entrenched. Right wing parties have been elected across the country in the last two years, and their leaders have made little secret of their distaste for policies originating from Ottawa.

The relationship, in particular, between Queen’s Park and the federal government has been strained and Doug Ford is joined by a host of premiers who seem to have little interest in idly accepting the policies the federal government is intent on implementing. These differences are real, differences based in policy disagreements fundamental to each government’s outlook.

That said, there are areas of cooperation that governments of all stripes and colours can find. What’s more, it is critical they do so to ensure the continued stability of Canada’s economy.

In that regard, there have been glimmers of hope in the apparent appetite for finding areas for collaboration.

Premiers have begun working proactively with one another to eliminate trade barriers between provinces. These barriers have been invisible anchors on the Canadian economy, stifling access, innovation and competition.

Perhaps just as importantly, an olive branch was extended when Ford indicated that he would be happy to work with the prime minister if the goal was to create jobs. There are other policy opportunities for the premiers and the PM to find alignment in and mutual benefit from — not the least of which is ensuring Alberta’s oil can find its way to market.

The Ontario government mentioned its commitment to helping solve Alberta’s heavy crude problem in its Fall Economic Statement, and the PM this week reiterated that the status quo cannot continue. After all, the Canadian economy is losing an estimated $80 million a day.

The Alberta question is approaching a boiling point. It is against this backdrop of international instability and internal strife that the federal government has requested a first ministers’ meeting next month.

All involved in this meeting would be well served to recognize the opportunity before them. With their eye on the international horizon, Canadians are watching that their governments deliver more than a lump of coal in their stockings.

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

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, November 25, 2018) 

Analysis: A Canadian Economic Statement, Inspired by a US President

Donald Trump helped write the Trudeau Government’s Fall Economic Update, but instead of copying the American President’s low tax economic prescription, Ottawa instead is giving tax breaks to businesses in specific industries, providing those businesses invest in the economy first.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is giving Canada’s manufacturers and clean energy industries immediate tax write offs for new machinery and equipment, and offering an accelerated capital cost write off to businesses in all other sectors of the economy.

Morneau announced the tax changes in his fall fiscal update, as he rejected calls from business and the Conservative opposition to match dramatic, across the board corporate tax cuts, enacted in the United States at the end of last year.

The Minister said the most important economic development in the past year was the successful renegotiation of the trade agreement with the United States and Mexico, formally known as NAFTA and now as the USMCA.

“We have preserved access to our most important market, and provided certainty for the millions of Canadians who’s jobs depend on it,” he said, referring to the $2 billion dollars worth of trade that crosses the Canada-US border each day.

“But just because we share a trade agreement with the United States doesn’t mean we will always agree with their approach.”

According to Mr. Morneau, matching the American tax cuts would add billions to the deficit and debt, worsen income equality, and make government services that millions of Canadians depend on less affordable.

“That’s not what we want for Canada, and it is not what Canadians want for themselves,”

And that is what Morneau and the Liberals are hoping. Instead of across the board tax cuts that would starve the government of revenue, they are saying that businesses that spend money and invest in Canada will benefit at tax time, but to benefit on your taxes you have to invest in the economy.  Ultimately, that investment will create jobs, economic activity and tax revenue.  An across the board corporate tax cut might do the same. But it could also go to increasing dividends with no accompanying job creation, and much fewer economic benefits to the economy as a whole.

The green energy equipment write off is another way the Liberals want to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives.  The Government wants to illustrate that it has more than just the tax on carbon as its environmental program to cut green house emissions. The Conservatives have made this a line in the political sand both federally and provincially, refusing to co-operate with Ottawa and impose a carbon tax in the provinces where Tories are in office. Morneau again repeated the Liberal pledge to impose a federal tax in provinces that don’t have one – and then turn the money collected directly to the residents in those provinces to help pay for higher prices the tax will create.

And while Morneau said mirroring the Trump administration’s tax cuts would have a devastating effect on government deficits and debt, the tax breaks he is offering are not without cost.

According to Finance Department figures released with the update, in the next fiscal year which begins next April 1st, the federal deficit will climb to $19.6 billion from the estimated deficit of $18.1 billion in the current fiscal year. According to the projections, after next year the deficit starts trending down again, to $11.4 billion in fiscal year 2023-2024.

Even though the new deficit projection increase the federal debt from $687.7 billion in the current fiscal year to $764.7 billion in fiscal 23-24, Morneau says economic growth will mean that the way the government measures the impact of the debt, through the ratio of the debt to the total Gross Domestic Product, will actually improve, from 30.5 per cent next fiscal year to 28.5 per cent five years from now.

Of course all of those figures are just projections.  Economic growth could slow and the deficit and the debt would grow, or the economy could continue strong growth, interest rates could stay low and the debt-to-GDP ratio could shrink.

And then there is the unknown that helped shape the update today. What will Donald Trump do to, and with, the American economy? Will his trade war with China plunge the United States into a recession, and if that happens south of the border can the same fate be avoided here?

Longer term, Ottawa wants to minimize that exposure to the U.S. economy by using both the Free Trade agreement with the European Union and the new Trans-Pacific Partnership to diversify our economy. The economic update even set a target for doing that:  Fifty per cent more trade with the countries in those agreements by 2025.

But that is for the future. The economic update was for the here and now. The next election is on October 21, 2019.

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

Olympic bid failure another sign voters reject elites’ big projects

It was never all that clear whether or not Calgarians would approve of the city’s bid for the Olympics in 2026.

Polling predictions were mixed. A few years of slumping oil prices had taken their toll on a formerly Olympic proud town.

Though opponents of the bid successfully convinced the provincial government to force a plebiscite that would ask city residents for their approval, the wind was not exactly at their back.

Proponents put together a highly organized and well-funded effort to support it, arguing that it was a chance to showcase Calgary on the world stage and bring Canadians together in a burst of national pride.

Most community leaders and many councillors strongly supported the bid, advocating publicly in favour.

Yet, despite their best efforts, Olympic-boosters were never really able to get a whole hearted, full throated endorsement from the mayor. Although Mayor Naheed Nenshi came on board about a week before voting day, he never brought his legendary campaign skills to the fight.

And, so, when the votes came in, the opinions of those city leaders proved not to match those of Calgarians.

Residents voted no. It was likely the right decision — everyone knows that the Olympics, often promoted as a city- and nation-building exercise, are little more than an overpriced circus that almost always leaves its host cities burdened with debt for generations and infrastructure that not only goes unused but falls into disrepair as well.

Yet another example, in a litany of examples, of Canadian voters going against the wishes of elites.

Doug Ford’s election was much in the same vein. Though pundits and Ontario’s elites were aghast at the thought of Ford winning government, he did win — and handily.

Ford’s approach, and his down-to-earth manner of speaking were seen by some as not fitting of a premier.

But he was relentlessly focused not on grandiose policies but on the issues that matter to voters. Some may roll their eyes at buck-a-beer pricing, or at cutting the gas tax, but they’re issues that are tangible to voters.

Similar campaigns have found success across the country — Quebec, New Brunswick, and most likely Alberta before too long, are opting for the things that affect them, not big-thinking policies that feel remote and pinch their wallets.

That is going to continue to define Canadian politics for the next while.

Our leaders — civic, business and political — continue to be obsessed with big-picture ideas, and nation-building policies. Climate change battles. Transforming our electoral systems. Being an international leader on refugees.

All are ideas that have been pushed in recent years by those leaders. All are ideas that are celebrated as important exercises in building Canada, both here at home and as an international brand.

Many of these ideas appeal to me. Like many, I have committed much of my life to making Canada a better place; to projects that help foster social cohesion.

But the evidence suggests big-picture thinking, which the elites continue to put on offer, is not what Canadians want to buy.

Our society has turned inwards. Self-care is no longer just a buzzword — it’s a way of living. Our social circles are smaller. Our thoughts unchallenged by ideological opponents. Our lives organized to avoid unwanted interaction.

This isolation means that many Canadians are feeling more self-interested than ever.

Let me give you an example. Polling overwhelmingly shows that Canadians believe in climate change, and that something must be done.

But polling also shows that the “something” had better not affect them. If it costs them money that they would otherwise use to pay their bills or lengthens their commute and keeps them away from their families, for instance, that support quickly evaporates.

For today’s political leaders it does seem to be a new world; a world where it has been repeatedly shown that the focus needs to be on the little guy and not on big ideas.

For better or for worse, it is an adjustment that any successful political leader will need to come to terms with.

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

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, November 18, 2018)