Cheers and jeers for 2017: Star columnists weigh in on underrated and overrated politicians and political plays

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Our Politics Page columnists select politicians worthy of praise for their work this past year, some who need to up their game, and who to keep an eye on in 2018.

The page will take a break for the holidays and return on Jan. 14.

Most underrated politician of 2017

Gooch: Premier Kathleen Wynne. At this moment Wynne is working with a personal approval rating below 20 per cent. It doesn’t get any more underrated than that. I remember arriving at the Ontario Liberal Party leadership convention in 2013 as a Sandra Pupatello delegate. Being from Windsor, Pupatello was my introduction to strong women advocates in Canadian politics. I came prepared with buttons that read “Congratulations Madame Premier.”

It was thrilling to stand on the Maple Leaf Gardens floor knowing that our two strongest candidates were women, and no matter the outcome of the convention, we were going to make history by selecting Ontario’s first woman as Premier. Wynne subsequently united the party, ran a successful campaign in 2014 and went to work delivering on the vision she laid out for the province, which she clearly communicated through public mandate letters with her ministers.

She made time in 2017 to travel the province, braving difficult conversations with Ontarians at town hall events. I’ve only known Wynne to be a principled and sincere leader. She is a titan in Canadian politics. As underrated as she is at the close of this year, I think we will see her catch her stride campaigning in 2018.

Sears: Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. Completing her second year in the suicide chair of any cabinet, Bennett gets too little credit for the achievements of the Trudeau government in building a genuine program of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. It is always tempting to mutter dismissively, “Problems everywhere still!” instead of marking what progress has been made. More agreements have been signed, more stupid anti-First Nations legal actions by the federal government cancelled, and more money flowed for First Nations health and education than in any time past. The naming of an impressively strong National Reconciliation Council last week, caps a year of real progress.

Not so good: the Missing and Murdered Inquiry remains wobbly, and a reset button may yet need to be hit.

Watt: B.C. Premier John Horgan brought the New Democratic Party back to power in the province for the first time since 2001. Horgan did an impressive job fighting former premier Christy Clark, a formidable politician, to a draw in the most recent election. Then he adeptly formed a coalition with the Green Party, while conceding little of his party’s agenda.

In government, Horgan has so far proven to be similarly adept. The Green Party has bent to his will on a number of issues, and the Liberals have not found areas of weakness on which to attack his government. Horgan is quietly effective, and he promises to be an important player on the national scene, even as the federal NDP struggles.

Most overrated politician of 2017

Gooch: Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. One of my favourite quotes to apply to political organization is, “The only reward for good work is more work.” Singh ran a fantastic leadership campaign in 2017. So good, that the bar is raised for how he delivers on his promise to grow NDP membership to build a strong campaign in 2019. Examining his record as a former member of provincial parliament in Ontario, aside from a friendly personal demeanour, I have difficulty understanding the fanfare.

I think it’s a mistake for Singh to prolong finding a seat in the House. The freedom to travel Canada and build his following is attractive, but the longer he waits, the more action he misses in Ottawa. He has amassed a loyal and passionate following over the course of 2017, an army of excellent organizers for the issues they care about. But retweets don’t equal votes. Singh’s next challenge is harnessing that energy to build and unite his party over the next two years.

Sears: Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre: Every Parliament produces at least one young blowhard politician, who is always loud, always certain, and frequently wrong. They usually grow up or get prematurely retired. In this case, surprisingly, the learning curve has been virtually flat over a decade and he has survived.

Poilievre is a good stuntman always ready with an angry sound bite, so he usually wins showdowns with less adept or self-promotional opponents. He has toned down his rent-a-rant in Opposition, and sometimes appears to be trying to demonstrate some gravitas. This year, though, he hit a new low this with his harassment and character attacks on Bill Morneau. Morneau’s missteps, misjudgments and simply bad decisions have been painful to watch. Attacking the man’s character and personal integrity came to close to Trump-style smears for even some of his own caucus colleagues.

Watt: Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew has not demonstrated nearly the same proficiency as Horgan. A darling of left-wing activists in the West and something of a media star before entering politics, Kinew was elected leader of the Manitoba NDP in September, following the party’s crushing election defeat by the PCs. Kinew was expected to be the kind of exciting leader the party needed to revive itself.

Instead, he has faced a number of issues that have undermined confidence in his abilities. Soon after his election, it emerged that he had been charged both with domestic assault and drunk driving, throwing the NDP off-kilter. His ham-fisted response included denial and silence before he acknowledged the challenges. The NDP under his leadership has continued to struggle to find its footing.

The best political play of the year

Gooch: Montreal mayoral race. Nobody expected it and she was told it couldn’t be done. Yet, Valérie Plante stands today as the mayor of Montreal. She is the first woman in the 375-year history of the municipality to hold the post. It was a stunning upset, and she proved the benefit of a strong ground game by securing 51 per cent of the vote. Going up against an incumbent is an uphill battle that I’m sure most political veterans advised against. But she came with energy, determination, and a plan that Montreal voters connected with.

Sears: The Barton Panel. The Trudeau government’s decision to name a high-level, blue-ribbon panel of federal economic advisers is neither novel nor often of much political value beyond announcement day. The difference this time was, first, the creative choice of panel head in Dominic Barton — among the most respected management consultants in the world, and the global Managing Partner of McKinsey — and in the creative selection of panel members.

Even more impressive has been the way in which the panel has performed: issuing its work in carefully calibrated chunks, ensuring they have been politically battle-tested, and consulting a wide range of stakeholders, before release. And crucially, defending its sometimes surprisingly bold proposals without simply appearing to be paid government sycophants.

Watt: Hands down, former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney’s impressive moves over the last year have been fascinating to watch. Kenney, seeing potentially years of being in opposition at the federal level, resigned his seat in the House of Commons to run for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, a party that was a spent force in the province. Kenney ran with the express promise to pack up the party and merge it with the upstart, right-wing Wildrose party to offer a united conservative alternative to Rachel Notley’s NDP government.

Many were skeptical that the Ottawa-centric Kenney would have enough credibility to take over a party that had previously been resistant to a merger. But Kenney won the leadership resoundingly, and forced a merger. Following the merger, many speculated he would not be able to take the leadership of the United Conservative Party as easily, but he did. Kenney has won two leaderships in the last year and has united a fractured conservative movement. In doing so, he has become the favourite to become premier of Alberta following the 2019 general election.

The worst political play of the year

Gooch: Quebec Niqab Ban. The passing of Bill 62, a law that made it illegal for public services in the province of Quebec to be received by people wearing face coverings was a sad moment in Canadian politics. It was alarming to see a Canadian government targeting a small group of already marginalized women by refusing much needed services. This dangerous political move played on a popular and misguided fear and hatred among Quebecers. This is a time when we need to be combating Islamophobia, not further entrenching it in Canadian policy. I was disappointed to see so few federal representatives speaking out passionately against it, including the prime minister.

Sears: Tax “reform.” If you want to survive one of the most risky ventures in politics — messing with the tax system — you better remember three things: keep it simple, bulletproof your political narrative for change, and ensure you have at least some of those most likely to be impacted by the changes on board in advance. The Trudeau government failed on all three in its badly botched summer tax ‘reform’ campaign.

The changes were impossible for any reasonable person to understand, were defended by attacking tax ‘cheaters’ among farmers, doctors and hair salon owners, and thus successfully incited a broad counterattack. A stunning self-inflicted wound.

Watt: Justice Richard Wagner, recently appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, made a major error this summer when he declined the applications of four LGBTQ advocacy groups for intervener status in a case against the law school at Trinity Western University, a private Christian school in B.C. The case stems from the fact that Trinity Western requires students to sign a code of conduct limiting sexual intimacy to heterosexual marriage, a stance many LGBTQ groups find egregious and a reason to deny Trinity Western status as an accredited law school in Canada.

Wagner, who said that LGBTQ groups were adequately represented in the case, declined to allow them as intervenors, leading to a broad outcry on social media. The decision was later reversed by then-Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.

Wagner was jockeying at the time to be named Supreme Court Chief Justice and the issue played badly with a socially conscious government. In spite of his later success in being named as Chief Justice, Wagner’s decision was ill-made.

The most likely to shine in 2018

Gooch: Black women in politics. In 2018, expect to see more Black women running, organizing and engaging in Canadian politics. Canada will be better for it, and political parties will be smart to empower and trust these women as they bring their talents to the political sphere. One race worth watching will be Leisa Washington in Whitby. The political rookie was just nominated as the Liberal candidate to go up against PC incumbent Lorne Coe.

“Men didn’t want to work with me at first. They were afraid of the unknown. ‘Will she outshine me?’ ” Washington shared, in describing her work as a trail-blazing WNBA and NBA sports agent. She has a tough race ahead of her, but she seems up for the challenge. I look forward to seeing Washington and more Black Canadian women shining in political spaces in 2018.

Sears: Jagmeet Singh. As several pundits observed in predicting his victory at the close of the underwhelming NDP leadership contest, the party’s biggest challenge these days is getting noticed, adding that Singh has never walked into a room without becoming the instant centre of attention.

His launch has been far from flawless, but his skills as a communicator, a conciliator and skilled political organizer will emerge more clearly in the New Year. Some pundits have whispered about his ‘ethnicity’ challenges, especially in Quebec. Like Obama, Singh does not need to cite his credentials as an authentic advocate of minorities — including Francophone Quebecers, refugees, and the powerless — they are unavoidably in front of your eyes whenever he speaks. New Democrats are slow to love a new leader. It took Jack Layton several years to achieve his incredible plateau of affection and success. Singh is the first since Ed Broadbent to have moved so quickly into the party’s affections.

Watt: Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has been a very effective advocate for Canada. Freeland has taken a low-key approach to the NAFTA negotiations, but has emerged as a key player in the government. As trade negotiations heat up, Freeland will become even more prominent on the domestic front. Deeply knowledgeable on the issues, Freeland will continue to demonstrate why she is one of this government’s most trusted ministers. She’s a strong communicator and one to watch moving forward.

Tiffany Gooch is a political strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight, secretary of the Ontario Liberal Party Executive Council, and an advocate for increased cultural and gender diversity in Canadian politics. Robin V. Sears, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, was an NDP strategist for 20 years. Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(As published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, December 17, 2017)

Breaking Out Of The Ottawa Bubble – A Review Of The Fall Sitting Of Parliament

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Ensight’s Matt Triemstra looks back at the past fall sitting of Parliament and examines how the Conservative’s great performance doesn’t translate into support outside of the Ottawa bubble.

Christmas has finally arrived in the House of Commons. Christmas poems have been recited by both Liberal and Conservative MPs, new Commissioners (Language, Ethics and Lobbying) have all been confirmed and stakeholders have jammed in as many meetings as they could in the dying days of 2017. MPs have now left Ottawa to return to their ridings and the House will remain empty until their return on January 29th, 2018.

But before we prognosticate too much about 2018, we ought to review the fall sitting of Parliament.

For the Conservatives it was exciting. They finally found a narrative that worked and upped their game in question period by keeping the pressure on Finance Minister Morneau, both with regard to changes to small businesses and his own personal financial dealings. Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kent Hehr is in the hot seat for being unsympathetic, Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly is not seen to be handling her files well and to top it all off, there is a rink on the grounds of Parliament Hill that is being ridiculed for costing 5.2 million dollars.

With so much ammunition, the Conservatives had every right to be excited and press their attack and they were rewarded by surging in the polls. Except they didn’t and they haven’t. December is ending just as September began, with the Conservatives still trailing in the polls. What’s worse for Conservative fortunes, is that their caucus was reduced by two MPs, as they lost what should have been safe Tory seats in recent by-elections.

So we are left with this conundrum: a successful Conservative sitting of Parliament doesn’t translate into votes or momentum for them. There is really only one cause for this effect: The Ottawa Bubble. Things that happen in the bubble can defy logic and don’t translate into mainstream momentum in the rest of Canada.

The current Conservative strategy is ‘death by a thousand cuts’, and while it may be effective in the bubble and in the long run, it is not proving to move votes in the short term and outside of Ottawa and that’s problematic for Andrew Scheer, who has less than two years to change the narrative if he wants to win in 2019. The Liberals know full well that if you are riled up over Morneau and small businesses, that you were never likely to vote Liberal in the first place. In the bubble, the Conservatives may have the edge, but the in the real world, Liberals know that their core vote hasn’t changed.

Conservative MPs now have 44 days to get back in touch with their constituents and find out what is resonating outside of the bubble, before the House resumes in January. And while the current strategy of death by a thousand cuts may work…eventually, no Conservative wants to spend a day longer than they have to on the opposition bench.

But in order to invigorate the nation, the Conservatives need to show Canadians not where the Liberals are failing, but where their policies provide a better and more compelling vision for Canada. The Conservative party needs to outflank Trudeau on the issues that they claim to own. And until they can come up with progressively conservative views on issues like marijuana, LGBTQ2 and the environment (to name just a few) they simply won’t be able to capture the attention of Canadians.

So while most Canadians view Christmas as a break, Conservative MPs should be using the time wisely by retooling their messaging and looking for issues that define them and not ones that slowly cut down the other guy.

Matt Triemstra is a Director at Ensight where he provides public affairs advice. He has over a decade of experience consulting and working for Conservative Members of Parliament and the Conservative Resource Group on Parliament Hill.

A critical moment for Black political organization in Canada: Gooch

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Last week at the Toronto Reference Library in Toronto, hundreds of Black Canadian leaders, policy wonks, media personalities, academics, activists, business professionals and artists aligned for celebrations and strategic planning sessions at the inaugural National Black Canadians Summit in recognition of the UN International Decade for People of African Descent.

Trailblazers and change makers gathered from across the country to discuss democratic engagement, access to affordable housing and shelter, Black ownership and wealth, community safety, access to justice, education, mental health, migration and inclusion, media representation, arts and Black identity.

The event was hosted as a partnership between the Michaëlle Jean Foundation and newly founded Federation of Black Canadians.

It felt more like a family reunion than a conference.

Jean, Canada’s former Governor General, was a gracious host. She brought the Canadian Black community together in a way only a diplomat could. Floating through the library, she shared special moments with each participant, engaged fully in the strategic planning sessions, and delivered a fiery keynote speech.

She shared stories about her month-long decision-making process to accept the appointment as the 27th Governor General of Canada. She wanted to ensure each role she took on was one from which she could initiate meaningful change. She later spoke of the culturally rich and proud revolutionary history of Haiti, “More than resilience, I call it resistance.”

This was an important moment for Black political organization in Canada.

South of the border Donald Trump continues to launch attacks on Black athletes, media personalities, and civic leaders. Openly supporting Roy Moore in his Senate race, who stated in September that America was last great, “ … at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery … Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

This week Democratic representatives John Lewis and Bennie G. Thompson organized a boycott around Trump’s planned attendance to the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The White House press secretary seemed to forget that Rep. John Lewis himself is a storied civil rights hero having led and participated in peaceful protests alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. since his time as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She had the audacity to lecture on respect for the legacy of the movement.

While the Toronto conference was organized as a Canadian community-led recognition of the UN Decade for People of African Descent, community members continue to wait, with waning patience, for Prime Minister Trudeau to show leadership on the issues discussed.

Municipal, provincial and federal political representatives braved the tough crowd, which was unapologetic in expecting an authenticity supported with timely action few politicians are able to master.

In the end, there was clear agreement that we should do this more often. Events like this allow us to share best practices across sectors, nurture relationships and amplify great ideas, which significantly strengthen our work.

The definition of success for Black political organization and activism in Canada differed between the organizers in attendance. The Black community in Canada is not homogeneous.

My experience as a fifth generation Black Canadian from Windsor, whose family liberated themselves from slavery on a journey to a life of freedom in Canada through the Underground Railroad, is different and yet in so many ways parallel to many of the organizers I met this week.

We are spread across the country organizing in unique communities with varying priorities, tactics, and levels of political engagement.

For all of our differences, we agreed that better coordination and amplification of great ideas is necessary. And so we will continue to organize in community centres, businesses, church basements, living rooms, and libraries — ready to thunderclap and speak with one voice when we are aligned on the issues and when it’s needed most.

I was honoured to join one of the panel discussions and was nearly reduced to tears as community elder June Girvan from Black History Ottawa rose to tell us “You are the generation we’ve been waiting for.”

During her visit to Toronto last month Michelle Obama made an important point. We don’t need one or two great leaders to move our work forward. We need thousands. This conference was an important step forward in empowering effective intergenerational leadership.

Like all great Black family reunions the event ended with the electric slide — a beautiful moment of joy and celebration as we prepare for the difficult work that lies ahead.

Tiffany Gooch is a political strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight, secretary of the Ontario Liberal Party Executive Council, and an advocate for increased cultural and gender diversity in Canadian politics.

(As published in The Toronto Star, Metro News Toronto, and Our Windsor on December 10, 2017)

Beware of the dark-side of social media: Watt

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Social media is an empowering tool, and one that has breathed new oxygen into our political process. It allows people to organize, to question and to rally. It has enhanced our democracy, and changed it for the better.

Movements like #metoo, which has broken the silence surrounding sexual harassment and assault, have found their power in social media. The quickness, reactivity and openness of social media has meant that men of power who have been abusers no longer control the dialogue.

Those in power don’t have power over social media forums. Those who once had little ability to reach the masses can now do so with no fear of being clamped down on or controlled by those in power.

It is safe to say that without Twitter, there would still be a cone of silence around issues like sexual harassment and assault.

Twitter has been used to shine a light on dozens of other issues. It has helped protestors organize. And it has helped dethrone despots.

Safe to say, social media has changed our world for the better.

And yet, there is a dark side of the moon.

The immediacy, the reactive nature and the openness of social media can cause grave damage, as well. Just as we have seen it used as a formidable tool to topple the powerful, the use of social media can ignite a fire that quickly burns out of control. The lack of control embedded in the use of social media means it can be weaponized against innocent people.

Take, for instance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent apology to the LGBTQ community on behalf of the Government of Canada for historical unfair treatment. It was a moving moment, and one that found cross-partisan support. Canadians across the country took to social media to express their happiness about the decision.

But something not so celebratory occurred. A tweet by a member of the press gallery stated that a section of seats among the Conservative Party ranks were empty, with no context. Others soon took photos and circled the “missing members,” highlighting their names and user names. Tweets in response ominously accused the members of a concerted Conservative walkout to protest the apology.

The social media outcry was swift and harsh. The “missing members” were decried as homophobic, bigoted and insulting. Thousands of tweets harassed the members for their insensitivity, and critiqued the Conservative Party for not having emerged from the Dark Ages.

The problem was, it wasn’t accurate. A number of the “missing members” were, in fact, present, and had simply moved to other seats. Others were at already scheduled events in their ridings or at scheduled personal commitments.

In fact, there was no credible evidence of a Conservative member boycotting the announcement.

But within 12 hours, many Tories faced on onslaught of personal criticism on Twitter by users who had not checked their facts. Those Twitter users gleefully besmirched a happy moment and the personal reputation of roughly a dozen Conservative MPs, entirely erroneously.

In fact, the misinformation continues to circulate two weeks later.

Talk about fake news.

The rush to judgment followed by an immediate backpedal was not an isolated occurrence.

It represents a situation that has occurred hundreds of times over social media in the last several years. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that has not yet been learned.

We live in an era that thrives on immediacy, and the rush to produce content has hampered the importance of getting the facts right. It is a problem that we have constructed ourselves, and one that we must fix.

The problem is that the apologies are never louder than the accusations. Headlines that blare of wrongdoing get infinitely more attention than the sheepish tweets admitting wrongful accusation.

The credibility of the social media user is on the line, but, more importantly, so is the reputation of an innocent person who may suffer irreparable harm.

There isn’t a simple fix to this problem. No legislation or Twitter policies or policing will change this. In fact, in an era when the president of the United States plays havoc with the facts, it is more challenging than ever.

It often seems innocuous to press the key that broadcasts information to our entire network. It’s easy and instantaneous and requires little thought.

But that action can have devastating effects. And so the change must begin with us.

We must learn to reread and rethink before we retweet.

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

(As published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, December 10, 2017)

Newman on NAFTA: Mitigating Collateral Damage

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Canada is a trading nation.

That is why developments in the past year to both our current and potential trading relationships are so troubling.

Look at the four pillars of our trade policy. NAFTA, The Trans Pacific Partnership, CETA, the trade agreement with the European Union, and a potential Free Trade Agreement with China.

The most important of these is NAFTA that ties our economy to those of the United States and Mexico. By more than a country mile, the U.S. Is our most important market, with seventy-two per cent of our exports going to the United States.

A year ago, Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States. He had run on a campaign to either change NAFTA or‎ end the treaty. Almost no one thought that he would be reckless enough to actually end NAFTA, we thought that Mexico with a favourable trade balance with the United States in the hundreds of millions of dollars could be under some pressure. ‎ Canada, with an almost equal trade balance with the United States, we thought was relatively safe.

That view‎ was heightened when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Washington after Trump took office last winter. When it came to Canada, the President said, all NAFTA needed was a few “tweeks.”

Well five months into renegotiating NAFTA the talks are stalled. The Americans have made a series of demands that would gut the treaty as we now know it. Both Canada and Mexico have rejected the demands, but the reality is most of the demands would affect Canada more than Mexico.

For instance, ending the independent dispute settlement mechanism and replacing it with domestic U.S. Tribunals in trade disputes with the Americans would turn every issue into a rerun of the one-sided softwood lumber dispute we periodically have with the Americans.

And the U.S. claim that American companies should be able to compete for Government procurement contracts in ‎Canada and Mexico, but “Buy American” policies could limit Canadian companies from competing in their country, has to be the most one sided trade proposals ever.

There are also American demands for a “Sunset clause,” that could bring an end to NAFTA every five years, new, tougher content rules for contents in cars manufactured between the three countries, and an end to corporations being able to sue governments for damages in trade disputes.

The current stand-off has many observers believing that President Trump will give the required six month notice to end American participation in NAFTA early in the new year.

He will do that to increase pressure on Canada and Mexico to give in to American demands. But if they don’t, NAFTA would be terminated.

If that happens, or even if it doesn’t, Canada had been hoping to expand its trade with the rest of the world through three new trade deals.

A year ago, that prospect seemed bright. It is less so today.

Foremost among the new trade arrangements is CETA. That is the trade and investment arrangement with the European Economic Union that went into effect in September.

Unfortunately, there are problems. In the on-going negotiations to form a new coalition government in Germany, the Green Party has been demanding the cancellation of German participation in CETA. If that were to happen, it would effectively kill the deal.

The other problem looming with CETA is NAFTA. As reported here before, European companies are holding back on ‎investment decisions in Canada until they see if operations they set up in here will also have access to the United States. In other words, if NAFTA fails there will be a negative impact on CETA too.

The other two pillars of our trade policy are in the Asia – Pacific. So far, this autumn, they have both brought disappointments.

The effort to resuscitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the United States seemed ready for fruition at the APEC Summit last month‎. But at the last minute Canada balked at signing. Canadian participation in the TPP remains a work in progress.

Likewise, negotiations with China for a Free Trade Agreement. ‎Business people traveling with Prime Minister Trudeau to Beijing and beyond this past week had hoped that the start of negotiations would be announced while the Prime Minister was in China. There was no such announcement. Only that preliminary talks will continue.

So, the trade landscape twelve months on is more complicated, more confusing than it appeared a year ago. The coming twelve months will be more challenging, more difficult and more important than the year just past.

This will have to be the top priority of the Trudeau government.

Because, Canada is a trading nation.

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.

Trudeau’s heartfelt apology to LGBTQ2 community welcomed: Watt

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Formal apologies issued by political leaders are as controversial as they are challenging to get right.

To many, these apologies seem like political tools, cynically used to garner or retain votes in certain communities.

Others see them as a way for the government, at no cost, to show it is acting on an issue. After all, apologies are cheaper than programs.

But for many of those on the receiving end, an apology is a powerful symbol — a way for a government to take responsibility for mistakes of the past.

When it was announced that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would apologize to LGBTQ2 Canadians for decades of, “state-sponsored, systematic oppression and rejection,” I questioned the impact such an apology would have.

While the prime minister’s record of accomplishment on LGBTQ2 community issues is a lifelong one, and he is clearly an advocate and an ally, I have been skeptical about the politicization of these announcements in the past.

So, was the move political or genuine? Could it be both?

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the Canadian government to former students of residential schools.

The apology was a powerful one. I was proud that Prime Minister Harper had the courage to say sorry for atrocities that had become a permanent dark mark in Canadian history.

I do not know how indigenous Canadians perceived that apology, but I am confident it mattered for many.

It’s been almost 10 years, yet it still resonates. The apology found the right balance.

Did it make things, right? I don’t know.

What I do know is that indigenous Canadians are still treated unfairly. One in four children in indigenous communities lives in poverty, double the national average. On average, indigenous children receive 22 per cent less funding for child welfare than other Canadian children. Suicide rates among indigenous youth are about seven times higher than among other Canadians. More than 90 indigenous communities still have boil-water advisories.

If we were really, meaningfully sorry, would we continue to let this happen?

I don’t think so, and hence my skepticism about the efficacy of these apologies.

I recognize that the residential school apology is unrelated to the apology to the LGBTQ2 community, and therefore not the perfect analogy. However, I worry that, in general, apologies act as a way to distract our attention on difficult issues where the challenge presented has no quick, easy or obvious answer.

Until this week, I had concluded that I would prefer that politicians make concrete attempts to fix ongoing problems rooted in history rather than simply pay lip service through apologies.

But this week, my view changed.

As a gay man, I found myself in tears when our prime minister stood in our House, the House of Commons, and meaningfully, genuinely apologized to my community.

As I have written in this space before, words matter. I was moved by Trudeau’s words.

“Mr. Speaker, the number one job of any government is to keep its citizens safe. And, on this, we have failed the LGBTQ2 people, time and time again,” he said.

“It is with shame and sorrow and deep regret for the things we have done that I stand here today and say: ‘We were wrong. We apologize. I am sorry. We are sorry.’ ”

Just as for so long, the taunting, violent words of a school bully mattered, the demeaning locker room words of a teammate mattered, or the derogatory words of a work colleague mattered, the words of a political leader mattered.

And Trudeau’s words were the right words.

The prime minister’s apology came without cost to the taxpayer, but it came with enormous benefit to many. It brought us one important step closer to making true his statement that “for all our differences, for all our diversity, we can find love and support in our common humanity.”

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

(As published in The Toronto Star on December 4, 2017)

Two Years of Legislative Progress for Trudeau: What Numbers Really Count For

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This week marks two years since the House of Commons resumed after the Liberal win in 2015. Ensight’s Shane Mackenzie looks at the legislation that has been passed to date and how it stacks up against Harper’s first majority government.

To kick off December 2015 – the newly elected Liberal government under Justin Trudeau threw celebrating out the window in favour of governing: they recalled Parliament to deal with immediate issues.

Two years hence – we look back at two years of work and reflect on the pace of real change. To sum up any government’s accomplishments is not an easy task. Many have tried.

You can break down performance and progress Minister-by-Minister, Mandate Letter-by-Mandate Letter, and/or Campaign Promise-by-Campaign Promise. The government released its own deliverology tracker site that was decried by critics and closely watched by journalists drafting pieces on the government’s admitted “challenges.”

At the mid-mandate mark, we can look at Stephen Harper’s first two years with his own majority (2011-2013) for as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as possible for Trudeau’s first term. Both sat for approximately eighteen sitting months. Both had majorities that could feasibly push through the same amount of business.

Let’s take a look at the scoresheets:

By the numbers: Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government (Dec 2015 – Dec 2017)

  • Royal Assent given to 28 government bills
  • Royal Assent given to 7 Senate bills (with 3 in the queue for it anytime)
  • Royal Assent given to 3 Private Members’ Bills (with 1 in the queue)
  • 32 bills were defeated
  • 13 bills were abandoned mid-process and will not be proceeded with

By the numbers: Stephen Harper’s Conservative government (June 2011 – June 2013)

  • Royal Assent given to 50 government bills (2 of which were notably large omnibus bills that amended numerous Acts)
  • Royal Assent given to 18 Senate bills
  • Royal Assent given to 15 Private Members’ Bills
  • 23 bills were defeated by this point
  • 5 bills were abandoned mid-process and were not proceeded with
  • 45 bills were left on the table hanging, delayed, dropped or defeated due to September 2013’s prorogation

While these numbers would suggest the Conservatives trounced the Liberals on progress – this sort of analysis equates 1-to-1 numbers of bills passed without looking at what’s in them.

The Liberals are still hoping to emphasize quality over quantity.

Trying to measure up a government like this one by its own standard – numbers – seems fair at first, although at the peril of being pedantic: there is more to it than that.

The Liberal government promised ‘real change’, ‘fairness’, and to not be Stephen Harper. That last one being a real linchpin that sealed the deal.

Conservatives had become associated with terms like “omnibus” bills, “prorogation”, “in-camera” committees, and “time allocation” that progressives lamented as being part of a ham-fisted scheme to undermine democracy.

The Liberals could not have spent almost a decade decrying the governing party for how they did things, if they would not improve things and be held to a higher standard once in their place.

They raised the bar on debate by consulting broadly first, evaluated each bill using gender based (GBA+) analysis, made committees more independent, and tried to make their answers more forthcoming.

However, this comes at a political cost. Voters expect results.

It’s difficult to both extend the amount of time spent discussing legislation and compete with a record of ramming things through quickly without remorse or regret.

Context is key. The Trudeau Liberals came in for the first time in 2015 after several years as third-party and several more before that in Opposition. The Harper government got its first majority in 2011 after 5 years of minority government where many of their bills that had been hampered from passing were ready to be reintroduced and rushed through under the guise of being pre-vetted.

It’s also about ideology. The Harper Conservatives made bite-sized bills that were red meat for their base, like mandatory minimums for crimes already considered heinous, back-to-work legislation that pre-empted negotiation or bills that “encourage” action without anything tangible in them.

While the Trudeau government has passed less bills, they have all been impactful or concrete as opposed to purely symbolic.

Governments do a fair number of things that are not easy to track or compare in metrics either: International work or trade agreements; regulatory work; funding and grants; interprovincial agreements or programs; transfers; and deals with private business. It’s also not easy to track the amount of times that the Trudeau government improved the tone, resisted the urge to shut down criticism at committee or put in a program that prevents as opposed to punishes after the fact.

Number of pieces of legislation passed is not a saleable message that Justin Trudeau will look to in 2019. And he tactically shouldn’t. He will focus on how Canada is “fairer” and “more just” in 2019 than it was at the end of 2015.

No tracking sheet or tidy wrap-up report card could show that Justin Trudeau passed more bills than Stephen Harper did, but… wait one minute – Hey, look! The Liberals taxed the 1% and gave more to those with families with children!

Shane Mackenzie is an Associate Consultant with Ensight. He has worked for Liberal Members of Parliament, as Social Media Coordinator for the Liberal Party of Canada, has spent time as a federal public servant, and has campaigned at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels.

King St. transit plan a kingmaker for Tory: Watt

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Something had to give.

Until very recently, King St. looked more like a parking lot than the central artery of Canada’s financial district.

Today, you can shoot a cannon down the street and be confident that you wouldn’t strike a car or truck.

In July, Toronto’s city council approved a one-year pilot project focused on giving streetcars, bikes and pedestrians the priority on King St. The program, implemented two weeks ago, was designed to ensure that the transit experience for commuters using the King St. corridor would be more palatable. And, it has done just that.

The implementation of council’s decision also marks the unofficial start of next year’s mayoral campaign.

In less than 12 months from now, John Tory will find himself in a rematch with Doug Ford, as well as facing a yet-to-be determined left-wing candidate. (Watch for a Desmond Cole- or Mike Layton-like candidate to join the race.)

Mayor Tory is nothing if not a savvy politician. He knows that 65,000 trips are made every day on the King streetcar. He also knows that many of those making these 65,000 trips are young, left-leaning millennials, who would never in a million years consider voting for Ford. They would, however, consider voting for a transit-focused left-wing candidate.

Remember, in 2014, Tory beat Ford by only 60,000 votes, and Olivia Chow ran a lacklustre campaign. If Chow had performed at a higher level and effectively split the vote, the chain of office would currently be around Doug Ford’s neck.

Tory was largely elected for two reasons. The first: he wasn’t Rob Ford, whom his brother, Doug, replaced as a candidate due to the former mayor’s illness. The second reason was Tory’s SmartTrack transit plan.

On not being Rob Ford, Tory gets full marks, He has brought professionalism, sincerity, thoughtful policy and a steady hand to City Hall.

On SmartTrack, he has faced more challenges. As once promised, transit lines will no longer extend to the Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre, the number of SmartTrack stations has been reduced, and significant funding uncertainty remains.

In Tory’s defence, there has been real progress on SmartTrack, and much of its perceived failure can more properly be attributed to poor communication.

But Tory’s streetcar manoeuvre on King St. diverts attention from SmartTrack. Among downtown transit uses, Tory is now seen as the Transit Mayor — a genuine hero who has given 65,000 commuters back 30 or 40 minutes a day.

This is wedge politics very cleverly played. The King St. pilot project (which will not be a pilot project for long) splits the electorate. There are two clear sides to this debate — those for the car and those for the streetcar.

Doug Ford has come out swinging. He’s announced that if he is elected mayor next year, he will kill the pilot project in its tracks.

Ford will position the project as an attack on the car, an attack on Torontonians who live outside the downtown core and an assault on businesses and the middle class.

Tory needs the King St. pilot to fend off a challenge from a transit-friendly candidate.

The project gives him cover to run as the fair and reasonable incumbent who made difficult decisions that kept the city moving.

Before the pilot project, Torontonians would have had trouble pointing to a Tory transformational policy.

At election time, this risks becoming a significant challenge for the mayor. As an incumbent, he needs to be able to point to victories that illustrate how he has made people’s lives better.

He has been an effective operational mayor; one who has kept the lights on and the city functioning reasonably well.

The King St. pilot project will become a real and well-understood Tory accomplishment.

This is smart politics. It may have been a difficult decision but it’s one that will help him politically in the next election campaign because it has made the lives streetcar-riding Torontonians a lot better.

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

(As published in The Toronto Star on November 26, 2017)

Canada right to support Caribbean hurricane reconstruction: Gooch

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The Canadian government joined the UN on Tuesday to answer a call from Caribbean nation states recovering from the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, which are requesting assistance from the international community for support in reconstruction.

Aside from a larger pledge from the Netherlands, which is intended exclusively for Dutch territories, the Canadian pledge of $100 million over five years was the largest in response, exceeded only by bilateral pledges from the European Union. A stark contrast to the U.S. pledge, which amounted to $4.3 million.

Celina Caesar-Chavannes delivered the announcement in her role as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development at the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) — UN High Level Pledging Conference.

Caesar-Chavannes was an inspired choice to share the news of Canada’s support to the region. She opened her statement sharing of her own Caribbean roots: “I myself, as a daughter of the soil from Grenada, am proud of this close bond and it is a privilege to be able to continue building these bridges between our countries.”

More than 32,000 people have been displaced by the 2017 Caribbean hurricanes, with an estimated 17,000 still in need of shelter. Communities are in the process of addressing immediate infrastructure projects, including schools, hospitals, government administrative offices, and private institutions at the core of local economies.

Livelihoods hang in the balance of this rebuild.

According to Global Affairs Canada the funding will begin by taking into account the needs assessments for both Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda. The funding further focuses on supporting local efforts, particularly those led by women, ensuring better preparation for natural disasters and reconstruction of essential services.

The Caribbean diaspora in Canada is powerful — according to 2016 census data it is nearly 750,000 strong, and Canada is immensely enhanced culturally and economically by these connections. When the storms hit, Canadian organizations, businesses and individuals sprung into action to ensure emergency supplies reached those in need.

The Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) served as a central organizing space for support to the region during the storm. The women in leadership of the JCA focused much of their efforts on Barbuda where the devastation was so widespread that the island was left uninhabitable for the first time in 300 years.

Toronto financial professional Akilah Allen-Silverstein stepped forward in support of friends and family in Dominica where 90 per cent of vegetation and structures were lost in the storm. She hosted an event this past week in efforts to replant trees and crops essential to preventing further flooding or landslides.

Akilah also shared the story of her mother, who considers herself lucky as she only lost a roof and was able to ensure her own safety while also salvaging some family albums from flooding. Her mother joined the local reconstruction efforts with a much-needed focus on securing appropriate mental health supports for communities impacted.

The success of these efforts will be defined by our ability to effectively empower women in leadership. Women who are creatively organizing to ensure children and youth don’t see a gap in their education due to the storms as institutions are rebuilt. Women working to ensure those traumatized by the storms have mental health supports. Women who are brimming with entrepreneurial ideas to bring prosperity and wellness back to their communities.

Toronto writer Sharine Taylor welcomed the Canadian investment watchfully: “We need to be mindful of how we play our global citizenship card to ensure it leads towards tangible changes on the ground.”

Sharine is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bashy Magazine, a publication aimed at carving an authentic space connecting the lived experiences of the Jamaican diaspora. I echo her hope that the support Canada is offering does not end up spent on administration before reaching the communities that need it most.

Long after the storms are no longer deemed emergencies and disappear from the headlines, local communities carry out the difficult work of balancing immediate needs of displaced families while also carrying out long-term reconstruction.

I’m proud that the Canadian government not only answered the call for assistance, but also chose to lead globally with a feminist approach in their response to supporting local reconstruction efforts in the Caribbean.

The resilient women and men rebuilding these communities have a long road ahead. In the words of Celina Caesar-Chavannes, “Canada is proud to stand in solidarity with its Caribbean friends.”

Tiffany Gooch is a political strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight, secretary of the Ontario Liberal Party Executive Council, and an advocate for increased cultural and gender diversity in Canadian politics.

(As published in The Toronto Star on November 26, 2017)

Is CETA Canada’s Last Hope if NAFTA fails? Not so fast, says Don Newman

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Ensight and Navigator’s Don Newman on the potential of CETA to replace any economic loss from a failed NAFTA but why European business are not committing until NAFTA is resolved.

Canada’s safety net may not be as strong as we had hoped.

With the renegotiation of NAFTA stalled by American demands on automobile content, Buy American procurement rules and the elimination of the current dispute settlement,‎ both the Canadian government and Canadian businesses have begun thinking about alternative arrangements.

And it is no idle search. We are a trading nation. More of our GDP is dependent on trade‎ than the any of the other G-7 countries and eighty per cent of that trade is with the United States. Not having NAFTA would not stop all cross border trade with the United States, but it would certainly put a crimp in it.

So what to do if NAFTA expires in a Donald Trump inspired wave of American protectionism? Enter CETA, the ‎Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union, which went into effect in September.

It is too early to see the benefits of the agreement yet, but there is optimism on both sides‎ of the Atlantic.

Now, however, some Europeans are saying not so fast. CETA took years to negotiate and the problem of market size was significant.‎ Europe has a population of 350 million people while Canada has a population one tenth of that. But throughout the negotiations the Europeans were aware that as a member of NAFTA, access into Canada was a way into the United States as well.

Trade agreements are as much about investment as they are about the movement of goods. With CETA, Canada stands to benefit from billions of dollars of investments in plants and equipment and the jobs that would come with them, not just to serve the Canadian market, but also the 300 million Americans living south of the border.

But now NAFTA is anything but a sure thing. And I am told by European sources that businesses there are awaiting the outcome of the ‎talks before making any CETA decisions.

In fact, the trade deal we thought could help offset any losses from a cancelled or diminished NAFTA may not be much help after all.

Low key NAFTA talks are scheduled in Washington next month, with a full blown round of negotiations with the Trade Ministers present scheduled for Montreal in January.

But as the NAFTA talks come to the crunch point, it is ironic that the fate of not one, but two trade deals, may ultimately be at stake.

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.