Morneau budget hit the right notes

This piece originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 24, 2019.

The Liberals had a lot to accomplish in the final budget of their mandate as they head into the election this fall.

An effective government should be able to do four things at once:

  • Address the issues of today facing Canadians.
  • Plan toward the future for our country.
  • Rectify past mistakes and course correct.
  • Manage whatever immediate crisis that may arise.

The crisis management aspect must never overtake the other three priorities. Canadians want to know that while their elected officials may be dealing with the crisis of the day — whether natural disaster, internal conflict, or international tragedy — they won’t lose the ability to govern in the process.

Responsible opposition critique would be best for Canadians if it addressed all four of these areas, rather than overwhelmingly focusing on and further sensationalizing the immediate crisis. The antics deployed by opposition parties — from an attempt to delay the budget speech to a marathon voting session — resulted in a missed opportunity to provide thoughtful critique or offer positive alternatives to the vision for Canada outlined in the budget this past week.

Affordability was central in this budget, and that was made evident by measures helping low-income seniors keep more of their Guaranteed Income Supplement, should they choose to stay in the workforce. The budget further included safeguards to ease the volatility of pensions in the event of company bankruptcies.

Each of these measures go a long way in helping ease anxieties as individuals and families plan toward an uncertain financial future.

The federal budget also introduced a non-taxable Canada Training Benefit aimed at helping Canadians plan for and pay for skills training. A great step toward the lifelong learning strategy we need to ensure Canadians are prepared to adapt to rapid changes in the job market.

(As a young Canadian looking to grow my own family, I was hoping to see a transformative commitment on child care and housing. It felt like the moment, but I’ll hold out hope that a plan is being developed for the election platform.)

When it comes to rectifying past mistakes and course correction, approximately one quarter of all new spending in the 2019 federal budget targets Indigenous investments. The single biggest investment in the budget went toward Indigenous services at $8.1 billion over five years to end boil water advisories on reserves, settle land claims and improve health care.

Allocating funding is one thing, but collaborative and timely implementation of this will be crucial.

On long-term planning, the Liberals found allies in the fight against climate change, this time partnering with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities on local efforts to retrofit homes and businesses. This is a critical alignment of municipal and federal government priorities at a time when some provincial counterparts are choosing to fight the federal government on its climate change approach rather than collaborate.

The Liberals also took a necessary step in leading the fight against racism with a commitment to create an anti-racism secretariat. A lot can be learned from the initial steps taken in Ontario to create such a body, properly fund it and ensure that leading grassroots anti-racism organizations are centred in the development of strategies.

Years from now, I look forward to bringing my family on a cross-country tour of the community and capital projects that will be funded over the next five years, commemorating the UN Decade for People of African Descent. I hope to be able to look my children in the eye and tell them I did everything I could to collaborate with leaders and government to help shape a more inclusive Canada, free from racism, ready for them to flourish in.

While the opposition would have you think the crisis of the day should be the only point of focus, the budget announcement served as a chance for the Liberals to show Canadians that there is much more work required for good governance on the broad scale.

What Canadians want is a government that can handle a crisis without losing perspective of the long-term issues facing our country. The budget that was tabled this week displays that this government has not lost sight of the challenges that lay ahead.

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

Alberta still the Wild West when it comes to election predictions

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday March 24, 2019.

You might think a province that can count the number of changes in government in its history on one hand would be one where predicting election outcomes would be easy.

But if there is one thing the last three Alberta elections have taught us, it’s that all is not as it appears in the sunshine province.

For those of us observers in the rest of Canada, much of the challenge in predicting the horse race results of Alberta elections lies in the outdated perception we have of both Alberta and Albertans. In 2019, the province is much more Nenshi and much less Klein; a shift that’s been driven in part by net-migration — from within Canada and abroad.

At various times in Alberta’s recent history, the pundits and pollsters have ended up tying their shoelaces together; politicians have staged improbable comebacks; while voters have flirted with the notion of change, only to return to the status quo at the last moment.

And so, I watch with interest as Albertans prepare to go to the polls April 16.

That anything can happen in a campaign is a cliché for a reason: because it is true. And it is especially true in Alberta.

Back in 2008, pundits obsessed over lingering bad blood from Ed Stelmach’s leadership race against party stalwart Jim Dinning. His government was destined to collapse from majority to minority status, or so went the conventional narrative.

But Steady Eddy proved the talking heads wrong. He ran a consistent, focused campaign that doggedly reminded Albertans that he “had a plan” and relentlessly hammered away at the shortcomings of Alberta Liberal Leader Kevin Taft. In the end, he proved the smart people wrong: the PCs picked up a dozen more seats.

Fast forward to 2012, when Alison Redford went into campaign season lagging by 22 points. As the Wildrose opposition took the lead, and media exposed details of a government committee that hadn’t met in years yet paid its members handsomely, the PCs faced an almost certain rout. Considering the party had been in power for 39 years at that point, many voters thought a rout was exactly what the PCs deserved.

But as the public turned its attention to the Wildrose bench, they discovered a team that wasn’t yet ready for prime time.

One candidate described how gays will burn in a “lake of fire.” Another Calgary-area candidate claimed that he had an advantage in the ethnically diverse riding “as a Caucasian.” The party’s leader questioned the science of climate change – hardly a deal breaker in oil-dependant Alberta – but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In the end, the PCs were returned to majority status and managed to stem their losses to five seats.

And then there was Jim Prentice’s 2015 roll of the dice when he tried to seek a mandate from voters to support his unpopular budget. This after he had engineered a mass floor-crossing of Wildrose MLAs to eliminate the province’s only effective opposition.

To say these antics left a bad taste in voters’ mouths would be an understatement and polls began to indicate that voters were looking elsewhere – namely, at Rachel Notley’s NDP. Yet, pundits remained skeptical.

Today, Premier Notley finds herself heading into her first re-election campaign facing a united and re-energized opposition. The PCs and the Wildrose have merged to create a Jason Kenny-led United Conservative Party that’s a formidable challenger.

The UCP, which has been leading in the polls for a year and a half, has started the election as the victim of its own self-inflicted wounds: candidates with sketchy pasts, an exposé in Maclean’s recounted a tale of skulduggery surrounding a “kamikaze” candidate who worked with Kenney to sabotage an opponent’s leadership campaign. All of a sudden, there are shades of the internecine warfare that was supposedly meant to doom Stelmach along with mutters of history from either 2008 or 2012 repeating itself.

But the UCP still maintains a commanding lead, and it is laser-focused on the issues — pipelines, jobs, and the economy — which will define the race.

While it is too soon to say whether its focus will pay off, this election may prove that campaigns do matter, after all.

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

Grounding Boeing 737 Max 8 a lesson in leadership — both good and bad

This piece originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 17, 2019.

Despite the conclusions you might draw from an “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to media coverage, there has never been a safer time to fly. What’s more, the objective truth is that commercial aviation is, by far, our safest form of transit.

In 2017, airlines recorded zero accident deaths on passenger jets.

That number was higher in 2018, largely owing to an accident involving a Boeing 737 Max 8, in Indonesia. And, following last weekend’s tragic crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, involving the same model of aircraft — higher still in 2019.

Historically, the number of fatalities has been so low that even a single accident, has skewed the numbers. The result? The industry enjoys a high level of trust among its passengers.

But two crashes, bearing even a hint of similarity, become more than enough to frighten regulators and the public alike. That mounting fear, coupled with “new data,” proved sufficient evidence for Transportation Minister Marc Garneau to ground Canada’s fleet of Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft this week.

It could hardly have been an easy decision. Air Canada, alone, relies on the aircraft to safely ferry 9,000 to 12,000 customers, per day. The economic cost to Canadian carriers has been estimated at $100 million in the first 10 days. As a consequence, Air Canada has cancelled earnings guidance.

But these accidents are now so rare that they are almost always “black swan” incidents — improbable confluences of events that can take years to untangle. They are so rare precisely because every expectable, even remotely plausible risk has been pre-empted and eliminated through the gradual imposition of safety measures over many years. This slow and steady approach is an example of government doing its job.

With every misstep and every tragedy, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, in lockstep with peers at other national aviation authorities, have inspired confidence by making incremental progress and considering important stakeholders.

For years, the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure safe travel. But that appears to be changing.

Nineteen hours after that crash in Ethiopia, the first country to ground the apparently problematic Boeing 737 was not the United States, not the EU, but China.

That day, FAA acting administrator Daniel Elwell issued a “continued air worthiness notification,” and said there was “no basis” to ground the aircraft. Meanwhile, as investigators recovered the black box and cockpit voice recorder, these crucial pieces of evidence were not sent to the Americans, but instead to the French Bureau of Inquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety. By this point, only Canada and the United States were still allowing the 737 Max 8s to fly.

U.S. media was quick to point out that Boeing has been carefully cultivating President Trump for some time. The company is a major military contractor, and donated $1 million to his inauguration committee, not to mention some $15 million spent on lobbying efforts. CEO Daniel Muilenberg has visited Mar-a-Lago and spoke to Trump personally early in the week.

Eventually, when every single country except for the United States had grounded the plane, the FAA had no choice but to do the same, leaving the United States to “lead from behind.”

Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler observed on Twitter that, in his years of covering airline safety, he “cannot remember a time when the FAA was so alone among world regulators on a serious safety issue. When a major accident like this happened, global aviation authorities conferred with the FAA — which took the lead.” But as with so many American institutions, in the age of President Trump, the FAA has seen its moral authority eroded.

On Wednesday, Minister Garneau was asked whether Canada’s delayed action was the result of pressure from Boeing or the American government. His response was that this decision required him to remove his “politician’s hat,” and don his “engineer’s hat,” removing politics and emotion from technical analysis.

His remarks reminded me how lucky Canadians are to have the steady, rational hand of a former Navy combat systems engineer and astronaut on the policy rudder.

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


Which Shoe Will Drop Next Week?

Next Tuesday will it be the new shoes or the other shoe to drop that gets most of the attention?

That’s because next Tuesday, March 19th, is both the day that Finance Minister Bill Morneau will bring down his last budget before next October’s election, and also the day that the House of Commons Justice Committee meets again on an issue that could very well determine who the winner of that election is.

The Liberals have been planning for a budget that would outline much of their platform as they head for a date with the other parties at the polls next October 21st. Now they hope the budget can do much more than that. They are hoping the plans and promises in the budget are exciting enough to change the channel away from the issue that has dominated all political discourse in Canada for the past month.

The Conservatives and the New Democrats are hoping the scheduled meeting of the Justice Committee will do just the opposite. Keep the issue alive and on the front burner, turning up more compelling testimony at committee hearings and perhaps even criminal wrongdoing that would ensnare Liberal politicians in the Prime Minister’s office and elsewhere.

That issue of course is the testimony of former Justice Minister and Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould that last fall she and her staff were inappropriately pressured by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his top advisors, and other political aides, to overrule the Public Prosecutor and negotiate a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with engineering firm SNC-Lavalin so the company could avoid prosecution on corruption and bribery charges.

Wilson-Raybould testified before the Justice Committee on February 27th. For four hours — sitting alone as a witness — she went through the material and testimony that climaxes with her losing her job as Justice Minister and Attorney-General in a cabinet shuffle at the beginning of this year, and then quitting the cabinet entirely the next month. As far as she is concerned, Wilson-Raybould says she lost the justice job because she would not bow to the pressure and agree to a Deferred Prosecution Agreement for SNC-Lavalin.

Since Wilson-Raybould testified at the end of February, the committee has also heared from Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Trudeau’s Principal Secretary who resigned shortly after the Minister quit the Veterans Affairs Portfolio she had been shuffled to, and by Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council. In fact, Wernick has testified on two separate occasions. The first time he was deemed to have been too partisan for a public servant. The second time didn’t turn out any better.

However, his encore performance triggered calls form the Opposition Parties to have Wilson-Raybould back again too. So far, the Liberals have been blocking that by using their majority membership on the committee to quickly adjourn it this week, and then scheduling a meeting next Tuesday, Budget day, behind closed doors.

“Cover-up” has been the opposition parties claim since that happened. It is still not clear whether the former Justice Minister will testify again, but the Conservatives and the New Democrats might be careful what they wish for.

Wilson-Raybould was so compelling her first time testifying, a second appearance might be anticlimactic. In her first appearance, the Liberals weren’t quite sure what to expect and the members of the Government on the committee soft balled their questions and approach to a witness that is both a woman and an indigenous Member of Parliament.

Wilson-Raybould is the worst nightmare for the Liberals, a woman and indigenous, attacking a Government whose leader Justin Trudeau says he is a feminist, and whose major objective as Prime Minister is indigenous reconciliation.

However now that it’s clear that Wilson-Raybould is out to destroy the Trudeau Government, the government is going to have to try and destroy her.  If she again appears before the Justice Committee that process will have to begin there.

Prior to bringing down a budget, Finance Ministers follow a time honoured tradition; they get a new pair of shoes and on Thursday Bill Morneau did that, sort of. Instead of a new pair of shoes he picked up a pair he already had that had been resoled at a shoe repair shop. The shoemaker who repaired them had used a government grant to retrain as someone who can repair shoes, and then set up her own business.

The Finance Minister will wear those shoes when he gets up to deliver his budget on Tuesday afternoon. He and the Government can only hope that what he has to say will ultimately have more impact than what Jody Wilson-Raybould does if she get another chance to justify, and lets the other shoe drop in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

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.

A theory on Justin Trudeau’s lack of contrition

How different this week could have been if Gerald Butts’ testimony was a springboard and not a trial balloon.

On Wednesday morning, the prime minister’s former principal secretary, who is among his closest friends and confidants, did exactly what was required to change the arc of the story. He established himself as a credible and personable actor with a different interpretation of the events that led to the cabinet resignations of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Dr. Jane Philpott.

After all, as the adage goes, there are three sides to every story: Yours, mine and the truth.

Most persuasively, Butts advanced the argument that all cabinet members have an “obligation” to inform the prime minister of concerns that rise to a level that necessitates one’s resignation.

Furthermore, “If it is a question of law and that minister is the attorney-general, the obligation to inform the prime minister is of an even higher order. And it ought to be in writing so that its significance isn’t lost.”

Butts also contrasted the volume and frequency of interactions — 10 phone calls and 10 meetings over a period of almost four months — to the hundreds of meetings he personally attended in consideration of the government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline or Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement negotiations.

It’s not a stretch to suggest Butts’ testimony allowed the Liberal Party, cabinet, caucus, staffers and supporters alike, the opportunity to exhale and breathe a sigh of relief for the first time in a full calendar month.

By sundown that day, the government found itself in a materially better position.

And things looked like they were going to get a lot better. The media were summoned to a most unusual daybreak news conference at the National Press Theatre, in Ottawa, on Thursday.

According to so-called “well placed sources with knowledge of the prime minister’s thinking,” contrition was to be on the day’s agenda.

But that was not to be. In fact, the prime minister stopped well short of an apology. Instead, he would only acknowledge that, “there was an erosion of trust between my office, my former principal secretary and the former attorney-general.” There was no suggestion that his office had made a mistake; no suggestion he was willing to utter the words so many had waited to hear: “I’m sorry.”

His only regret? That, “situations were experienced differently.”

Whatever progress Butts had made for the government was undone. By the end of the half-hour media availability, Team Trudeau found itself stuck in the same mud in which it has been mired in since l’affaire SNC-Lavalin leapt into the national consciousness.

If such thin gruel was all that was to be on offer, why summon Canadians’ attention at all? Why not let Butts’ testimony stand on its own.

Instead of acknowledging impropriety, announcing further staffing changes, or making a decisive decision to separate the attorney-general portfolio from that of the minister of justice, there was only an astonishing display of hubris.

Even before he was elected, the criticism of Justin Trudeau was that he was all style and no substance. Whether or not you agree (and I don’t), this week’s performance did nothing to dissuade his detractors.

So why on Earth could the prime minster not bring himself to apologize? Especially given we, Canadians, apologize so frequently it has been deemed part of our national character.

The explanation may well lie, or at least be rooted, in the psycho- and physiological effects of stress that we sometimes encounter in times of crisis.

When confronting threatening or uncontrollable situations, our body’s endocrine system is programmed to produce changes in our central nervous system. It is what makes us more alert, more ready to fight or flee. It’s what elevates our heart-rate, and causes both sleeplessness, and those pesky “butterflies.”

It also influences our cognitive processing, compromises decision making, and contributes to errors in judgment. We are programmed to be reactionary, not considered. We limit the options at our disposal and revert to old habits — just when we need to do the very opposite.

I have a hunch that’s what happened in the very highest levels of our government this week.

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, March 10, 2019) 

Upcoming budgets must have sustained funding to combat sexual violence

There has been much debate lately over what constitutes a truly feminist government.

With this in mind as the federal and provincial budget announcements approach, I hope we will see substantial support for organizations providing front line services aimed at combating sexual violence in Canada.

Last week, MeToo Movement founder Tarana Burke, was at a Toronto event hosted by the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) and Consent Comes First, Ryerson’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education.

In her remarks, Burke succinctly reminded the audience that, “A hashtag doesn’t heal you.”

Awareness is an important piece of the puzzle, but so is sustainable funding to give survivors the necessary wraparound supports to heal and rebuild.

Sexual Assault Crisis Centres in Ontario are currently adapting to a drastic change in direction following the 2018 election, which resulted in a substantial decrease in their expected operational budgets. What was meant to be a 30 per cent increase in base funding was subsequently reduced to a one-time commitment of $1 million in the next fiscal year — a quarter of what was previously assured.

Funding uncertainty makes it difficult to co-ordinate and deliver adequate and needed front-line supports in an effective way. We can do better — and should, when lives are on the line.

Too many of these front-line organizations are running on shoestring budgets. If government wants to be helpful, while consultation and coordination are great, sustainable financial support is what is truly needed.

It’s essential to facilitate collaboration and avoid duplication of efforts between governments, the private sector, non-profit partners and survivors — which can be difficult within a highly polarized political environment.

The Centre to End Human Trafficking is in the process of launching a Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline aimed to provide confidential, multilingual, around-the-clock services for victims and survivors of both labour and sex trafficking. The hotline is modelled after the Polaris Project in the United States (and similar initiatives in Mexico and the U.K.). In its decade of operation, the Polaris Project has fielded more than 100,000 interactions that identified over 30,000 cases of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a complex crime taking place in urban and rural communities across Canada. It is the most vulnerable women among us who are at risk and in need of support, including those on the economic margins, newcomers, Indigenous women, youth and children.

It’s difficult to measure the true prevalence of sex trafficking in Canada. Of those reported, 95 per cent of human trafficking victims between 2009 and 2016 were women.

It’s easy to get caught in the consultation loop on these issues. The federal government has just completed a consultation in the development of their upcoming human trafficking strategy, and the provincial government in Ontario is about to embark on one of their own. One would hope that information could be shared so front-line service providers can focus on their work. Consultation for the sake of consultation is not always the best use of government resources. At some point we must act.

The federal government has a role to play, in collaboration with provincial counterparts, on the national strategy to replace the first national Anti-Human Trafficking Action Plan that expired in 2017.

Municipalities can do their part too, by enacting and enforcing policies to ensure bylaw officers are properly resourced to regulate licensed and unlicensed establishments where individuals are being trafficked.

Banks and credit unions can contribute in both prevention efforts and supports available to assist survivors. Private institutions and philanthropic organizations can look for opportunities to help fill funding gaps left as the political pendulum swings.

These are issues that cross partisan lines and require true partnership between all levels of government. There is no reason for organizations working to support survivors of sexual violence to do so without funding security.

In the words of Tarana Burke, “We come to the work because we are the work.”

This International Women’s Day I offer kudos to the women and men tirelessly serving on the front lines to eliminate sexual violence and sex trafficking in Canada and ensure survivors are sufficiently supported. The services you deliver are essential — and in 2019, government funding decisions should reflect that.

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, March 10, 2019) 

Wilson-Raybould testimony nothing if not a Roman spectacle

On Wednesday afternoon, in an event that exceeded its considerable billing, Canada’s former attorney general and minister of justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, filled in many of the contours of Bob Fife’s early-February reporting that thrust the prime minister, his closest advisers, and the Liberal Party of Canada into a political firestorm.

Her testimony was as astonishing as it was remarkable in its candour, and willingness to draw blood.

Wilson-Raybould named names and read records: phone calls, emails, text messages, and contemporaneous meeting notes. She told a story of a co-ordinated and persistent effort by the machinery of government — PMO and PCO alike — to influence her decision-making.

She vividly recalled veiled threats and potential personal consequences. Her recollection of 10 phone calls and 10 meetings contradicted Michael Wernick, the clerk of the privy council.

Her language conveyed, in a straightforward way, her conviction that an injustice had taken place.

And, yet when the dust settled, there remained so much more to be said.

What has the PMO not allowed the former AG to say? Why was she not released to discuss her time as minister of veteran affairs and her resignation from cabinet?

And then beyond the former minister herself, what will others have to say? How will Gerry Butts use his appearance before the Justice and Human Rights Committee to recast the government’s narrative?

What about all the other people Wilson-Raybould named?

And above all, how will l’affaire SNC-Lavalin play out in Quebec vs. ROC? Which parties’ electoral fortunes will it help? Whose will it hurt?

While we wait for answers to these, and many more questions, specific to this matter, we’d do well to think about some of the things which gave rise to this mess at first instance.

Lisa Raitt, deputy leader of the opposition, asked Wilson-Raybould on Wednesday if this experience had left her with anything she thinks should be recommended to parliament.

Wilson-Raybould’s response was instructive.

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” she said, “and I think this committee [should] look at the role of the minister of justice and the attorney general of Canada, and whether or not those two roles should be bifurcated.”

She went on to say to say that there should be consideration around “having the AG not sit around the cabinet table.”

In hindsight, it’s plainly clear she has a point.

While there are procedural and practical arguments for dividing the roles, perhaps the most important argument for doing so is the simple fact it is unreasonable to ask one person to perform two contradictory roles.

Is it not, on its face, absurd to think that one person can, one minute, be expected to act in a non-partisan way and then in literally the next minute to act as a partisan?

In our system, the minister of justice is inherently partisan: She or he is responsible for drafting partisan policy and shepherding partisan legislation through Parliament on behalf of the governing party.

The attorney general, on the other hand, is the chief law officer of the Crown, responsible for the government’s litigation and for providing legal advice regarding the very policies they have — while wearing their minister of justice “hat” — helped to draft.

In the United Kingdom, the role of the secretary of state for justice, who has oversight of the ministry of justice, is separate and distinct from the attorney general, who is the chief legal adviser to the Crown and oversees prosecutions but is not usually a member of cabinet.

And when the AG has sat in cabinet, problems have arisen. Prime Minister Blair’s AG Lord Goldsmith came to a “better view” of the legality of the Iraq War 10 days after conversations with the prime minister and his cabinet. And the rest, as they say, is history.

When Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks of the strain that she has been subject to, she refers of course to “political interference.” But she is also sounding a warning to Canadians that the burden she faced stemmed, at least in part, from a structural flaw in our political system.

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, March 3, 2019) 

By-Election Breakdown: Who won? Who lost? And why not enough people cared

The stakes were high in last night’s three by-elections that were geared to establish a narrative of momentum going into the October national vote. These are the last wins that parties could mount as trophies on their electoral shelf.

In a unique twist, everyone eked out a win.

  • WIN: The NDP’s Leader Jagmeet Singh won a higher NDP vote percentage in Burnaby South than his predecessor in 2015, giving him a spot in the House of Commons in advance of the 2019 election and allowing him to comfortably stay on as Leader of his party;
  • WIN: The Conservatives replaced retiring Harper cabinet stalwart Peter Van Loan with Scot Davidson, which keeps a foothold for them in the vote-rich GTA on top of increasing the Conservative vote percentage from 2015;
  • WIN: The Liberals are +1 in total seats after taking the riding of Outremont, following over a decade of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair holding that seat. Liberal insider Rachel Bendayan will be the next MP for Outremont – a proof-point for Liberals in Quebec that the SNC-Lavalin Affair is playing differently there;
  • WIN: The Green Party can point to a historic result in Outremont, winning 12.5% — enough to get their financial deposit back and enough to signal momentum; and
  • WIN: The Peoples’ Party, Maxime Bernier’s new political vehicle only in its infancy, ran candidates in all three by-elections and their Burnaby South candidate Laura-Lynn Thompson won over 10% of the vote there on a socially conservative platform.

In terms of short-term momentum, this could be chalked up as a wash for all parties. However, looking further down the road, this has cemented an NDP leader for the October campaign with weak poll numbers, national fundraising results, national media presence, and personal policy branding. Prime Minister Trudeau’s team is likely optimistic if his track-record as Leader continues down this path.

Singh’s NDP Caucus colleagues will now get to spend more time with him in Ottawa, but almost 1 in 4 of them won’t be standing with him in October by running for re-election. The NDP’s future hinges on Singh showing up to Ottawa and making a strong impression during the handful of Parliamentary sitting weeks left before the summer recess, which will put all party leaders on the road.

The regional story here is one that matches what many observers have been forecasting. The Liberals may be weakening in BC while the NDP are weakening in Quebec. The small surges for the Greens and Peoples’ Party eat away at left and right-wing parties respectively, which may leave space for the Liberals in the middle to hold ground.

The arc of these by-elections was about symbolism on the national stage more than anything though and voters play into that when they are being put on a pedestal. This is why party leaders are usually gifted seats, even if it’s not their home region. Canadians would be too polite to see Singh crumble before he even got a real chance.

The Liberals spent the evening spinning a narrative that government parties don’t usually win by-elections, yet they have swung three ridings away from other parties toward their own since 2015. As by-elections are mere jolts of momentum anchored in a moment in time – this trend is perhaps not emblematic of historic levels of enthusiasm for the Liberals. These ridings mostly pivoted at key moments in time around popular candidates who had been Mayors or community leaders already.

While all parties will—and should—celebrate the wins for their members that drive donations and door knocks, there was a real loser last night.

By-elections traditionally have worse turnout than general elections, which themselves have seen steady decline over time. The 2015 election saw a brief uptick to almost 60%, but the expected trend after 2011 was set to see less than 1 in 2 Canadians vote.

Even considering poor weather in some areas, each of these by-election ridings saw only about 1 in 5 eligible people vote.

It’s a real shame that parties may be able to point to percentage gains and momentum for their side, but ultimately we are talking about only a small vote differential in ridings with populations of almost 100,000.

Now, as we turn from by-elections to the general election on October 21, 2019 – it will be key for all parties who want to win big to tap into those other 4 out of 5 to help us really see where Canadians want their country to go.

Leave families out of news coverage

The 2019 federal election year is upon us and Canadian political discourse is moving at a furious pace.

With new information regarding the SNC-Lavalin affair surfacing by the minute, journalists have been admirably vigilant in their pursuit of presenting the facts, as they are made available, to the Canadian public.

But amidst the various, thoughtful angles presented across outlets in the coverage of the federal political landscape this week, it was incredibly disappointing to see that a production team felt it appropriate to go to the family home of a former public servant — and present the cringeworthy intrusion that ensued as an exclusive interview.

In the wake of the resignation of Gerald Butts from his post as principle secretary in the office of the prime minister last Monday, a CTV reporter and photographer attempted to conduct and film a clearly unwelcome interview with his spouse, Jodi Butts, on the doorstep of her home.

The exchange was painfully uncomfortable to watch.

The reporter ignored any and all respectful social cues as Jodi Butts sternly, and somehow still politely, requested privacy out of concern for the safety of her children — a response that was remarkably patient and graceful considering the circumstances.

Many lines were crossed here — from the producers who pitched the story, to the reporter who awkwardly and inappropriately knocked on her door and filmed the exchange, to the social media writer who misleadingly positioned the video as Jodi Butts “Speaking out about her husband’s resignation from the PMO.”

Perhaps one day Jodi Butts will decide to give an exclusive interview.

It could be on her extensive and distinguished career as a lawyer, her advocacy for mental health and addictions issues, or on the highly dynamic leadership qualities she possesses on the issues she is passionate about.

I hope that if she does, it is on her own terms.

Until then, as a fellow Windsorite and friend, I support her fierce approach to protecting her family from unwarranted harassment, both online and by members of professional media.

There is a Canadian standard that must be upheld of our professionalism in political and public discourse. It starts with the balance of chasing a story while respecting the boundaries of decency.

We each play a role in shaping our culture by what we allow to happen around us. In this case, journalists, political leaders of all party stripes and citizens alike were forceful in their response to the CTV Vancouver segment.

It was widely criticized and appropriately characterized as an embarrassing ambush and disgraceful move on the part of the CTV Vancouver team involved. While it did not air on national news, the very fact that it was broadcast locally and posted across its network online is deeply concerning.

Each time a line like this is crossed, it must be called out.

Our country is richer when more diverse Canadians consider bringing their talents to roles in service to the public. The negotiation with one’s family to serve is a complex undertaking — the impacts on spouses and children can be wide ranging.

But the type of media spotlight we saw last week, on the families of current or former public servants, is never appropriate.

As I write this, the video remains on the CTV website, clipped shorter to remove the most important message that Jodi Butts articulated: her concern for the safety of her children and request for privacy.

The families of our public servants, and former public servants, deserve personal privacy. While it won’t undo what took place, CTV Vancouver owes Jodi Butts and her family a public apology for the ambush at her home, and for broadcasting the exchange that took place. The video should also be removed from the CTV website, in its entirety, sooner than later.

By all means, do your duty to the public good and chase a story from all ethical and professional angles available.

But be decent. And leave the families out of it.

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 Sunday, February 24, 2019)

Facebook users not yet ready to walk away despite troubles

Not all that long ago, certainly in my lifetime, Ma Bell, as she was affectionately known, was a communications powerhouse; ever-present with an absolute monopoly over our American neighbours’ telephone service.

By the 1980s the American Bell System — which spawned our very own Bell Canada — generated over $70 billion US in annual revenues and employed a million people.

That was, of course, until the United States Department of Justice brought forth an antitrust suit, which led to the dismantling of the biggest corporation in American history.

It happened once. And, watch, it just might happen again.

In the early days of the internet, connectivity was viewed as the great equalizer: Democratizing publishing, rendering geographic distance inconsequential, upending established power structures and disrupting traditional business models.

But as the internet has grown and matured, the outcome has been just the opposite. The result? A dangerously small number of corporations have come to monopolize our digital lives.

Attention is the single most important commodity in the digital economy. And the absolute titan in that regard is Facebook. After YouTube and Facebook, among the most-used platforms are WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram, with 1.5 billion, 1.3 billion, and 700 million users apiece.

And guess what? All three are owned by Facebook.

So, how has Facebook — a single company — been allowed to accumulate so much of the market share?

The truth is, internet companies operate in a field that is scarcely understood by either customers or regulators. But more than that, in any match between Big Government and Big Technology, Big Tech always wins.

And so, between the novelty of the product, the ignorance of the consumer, and the absence of government regulation, a $445-billion company has been able to take deep root.

However, that era of unimpeded growth may be coming to an end. The aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election brought with it an acknowledgement that these platforms were effectively weaponized by hostile foreign powers. The unprecedented accumulation of personal data by these companies has created all manner of potential liabilities, and foreign interference in elections is only one example.

The consequence is that a new level of scrutiny has begun.

The Canadian government has announced a panel of civil servants has been deputized to watch for foreign interference during an election campaign.

The federal parliamentary committee on privacy and ethics has made 26 recommendations that would block hate speech, limit surveillance, and protect user privacy.

And, just this week, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould testified before the procedure and house affairs committee, suggesting a critical examination of the role of social media in democracies with a view “to hold[ing] the social media companies to account.”

In the U.K., a select committee of the House of Commons issued its final report on the inquiry into disinformation and fake news. Among the committee’s findings, Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated privacy and anti-competition laws.

According to the report, “big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight. But only governments and the law are powerful enough to contain them. The legislative tools already exist. They must now be applied to digital activity, using tools such as privacy laws, data protection legislation, antitrust and competition law.”

Since the beginning, missteps were priced into Facebook’s success. Mark Zuckerberg’s motto was “move fast and break things.” Surely, that wasn’t intended to extend to the public trust.

Short of antitrust action, Facebook’s gravest threat may well be that the user — of what is ultimately an advertising business, and therefore the product — will eventually grow bored of the service or weary of scandal and walk away.

Polls tell us the public professes to be concerned about digital privacy. And yet, when Facebook announced its annual results last month, after a bruising year of drip, drip, drip revelations of questionable conduct from Cambridge Analytica to accusations of fomenting genocide in Myanmar, usership was actually up across the board, in every region of the world.

All of which, of course, asks the question: so long as users are not prepared to abandon Facebook, how much political capital will governments expend on policy prescriptions to regulate it?

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, February 24, 2019)