Sometimes ambiguity can be a blueprint for survival

0 Comments 07 March 2017

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau displayed no such ambiguity when he launched a plan for electoral reform during the last election, boldly proclaiming that 2015 would be the last vote under the current system.


First published on Monday, February 6, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—In politics, ambiguity is usually considered a sign of weak leadership. But it can sometimes be a blueprint for survival.

When the Government of France weighed in on the question of an independent Quebec back in 1977, they coined a phrase that epitomizes political ambiguity. The “non-indifference” policy was their explanation to support but not to interfere in the move for Quebec separation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau displayed no such ambiguity when he launched a plan for electoral reform during the last election, boldly proclaiming that 2015 would be the last vote under the current system.

Today, he probably wishes that he had been a little less categorical. In the heat of a campaign, certainty is a lot more attractive than ambiguity.

Explaining his about-face in the House of Commons last week, the prime minister appeared uncomfortably resolute. Without consensus on electoral change, it would be folly to change the system.

Predictably, the New Democrats attacked Trudeau viciously. NDP spokesperson Nathan Cullen admonished himself publicly to choose his words carefully. He then proceeded to call the prime minister a “liar” and “the most cynical variety of politician” who “spit in the face” of hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

Cullen’s response was angry, because his party stands to lose the most without proportional representation.

His party is also to blame for the impasse. They chaired the parliamentary committee which effectively set up the Liberal exit strategy.

By endorsing only one alternative system, that of proportional representation, committee members effectively signed the death warrant for electoral reform. The Conservatives said little last week, because they oppose reform. Their insistence on a national referendum on the matter was intended to scuttle any change.

By recommending only one system, and then agreeing to a national referendum, the NDP killed its own goose.

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Trump’s only venture into theatre was a bust

0 Comments 02 March 2017

Donald Trump is preparing to use an extraordinarily powerful bully pulpit to promote the Trump legacy as a blue-collar billionaire. What better way to drain the swamp than hitting out at left-wing media and cultural elites.

Published on Monday, January 30, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—Donald Trump’s only venture into theatre was a bust.

So it stands to reason that one of his first acts as president could be to cut all funding to the only two federal agencies with a mandate for arts and culture. Last week The Hill, a congressional news source, reported on a plan to eliminate all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

The NEA, established by an Act of Congress back in 1964, currently receives only $150-million in federal government funds. That represents a pittance of the $10.5-trillion in cuts proposed by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing organization providing the blueprint for administration budget direction. As for the CPB, its total annual funding from public coffers is less than $450-million.

Both sums are chump change. By contrast, the Canada Council for the Arts is currently funded at a rate of $220-million Canadian dollars annually, almost $20-million more than the congressional allocation for the NEA, in a country with one-tenth the population. The last federal budget boosted the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation budget by $675-million over five years.
But it is obvious that Trump’s political agenda is not about simply balancing the country’s books. He is preparing to use an extraordinarily powerful bully pulpit to promote the Trump legacy as a blue-collar billionaire. What better way to drain the swamp than hitting out at left-wing media and cultural elites.

It may also be payback time for ancient grievances.

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Language politics return to Canada

0 Comments 24 February 2017

Justin Trudeau not speaking English during a town hall in Quebec is less of a political problem than Conservative leadership candidate O’Leary not being able to speak French.


Published first on Monday, January 23, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—The politics of language and the language of politics are as Canadian as hockey.

Last week, the Liberals and Conservatives were both facing heat on Quebec’s hot-button language issue.  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in trouble for speaking too much French, and Conservative candidate Kevin O’Leary for not speaking enough.

Both were defending their language choices for different reasons. Both faced the wrath that can only be unleashed by the politics of language in Canada.
Trudeau, in Sherbrooke, Que., on his cross-country tour, waded into the language issue, by answering all questions during the town hall debate in French, even those that were asked in English.

He prefaced his language switch with a comment in English that “since we’re in Quebec, I’ll respond in French.” Trudeau had obviously decided in advance to stick to the preferred language in every province.  

He spoke mostly English in provinces that are designated as unilingual English, and vice versa in Quebec. The only Canadian province designated bilingual is New Brunswick.

But federal language policy guarantees every Canadian the right to receive federal services in the language of their choice, regardless of where they live.

In pursuit of that right, at least two people have taken the prime minister to task by filing complaints with the official languages commissioner. Those complaints guarantee that this issue is not going to go away any time soon.

It also puts the prime minister in the enviable position of defending his use of the French language in Quebec. This politics of language may actually reinforce support amongst francophones who criticize Trudeau for not being French enough. With a francophone father and an anglophone mother, Trudeau is truly comfortable in both languages but has been denigrated publicly for thinking in English and being less  fluent in his father’s mother tongue.

Holding any political event in Quebec always puts the language issue under the spotlight. Had Trudeau simply responded in the language of the questioner, he might actually have spent more time speaking English, which could have caused a different kind of political flak.

His team obviously calculated that, in the long term, risking the ire of Quebec anglophones was less dangerous than appearing too English in Quebec. He does, however, run the risk of falling short on his avowed support for bilingualism.

If that ever-present language dilemma is all too complicated for politics, Trudeau has a less intractable problem than that of Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary.

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Cabinet changes in both countries speak louder than words

0 Comments 17 February 2017

Justin Trudeau will make sure he is not caught in the crossfire in potential trade disputes. He has nothing to gain by accenting Yankee-Canuck differences.


Published on Monday, January 16, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—The new year cabinet changes in Canada and the United States are a keen study in just how different our two countries really are.

With the departure of Stéphane Dion and John McCallum, the face of the Liberal government is even younger and more diverse.

Dion and McCallum had decades of experience in government. Their departures deplete the experiential depth and breadth of the cabinet.

Most ministers don’t only manage their own departments and responsibilities. They may weigh in on major national issues, which impact on the government and the whole country.
Prime minister Jean Chrétien’s decision not to join the war on Iraq, was seen as seminal. Chrétien’s four decades in Parliament played a role in that decision, but he also consulted multiple cabinet members, especially those with lengthy political experience.

Youth has the benefit of energy and drive, but with age comes wisdom. History often repeats itself, which is why some wizened faces in cabinet are a good thing.

The deeper Trudeau goes into his mandate, the more he will need to count on colleagues with experience to weather difficult storms.

The youthfulness of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself has been key in attracting a whole new generation of engaged young people. His commitment on issues like marijuana managed to engage a new generation, one that previously had no interest in government.

That intergenerational change has served the Liberals well but it also has limitations.

Maryam Monsef came to cabinet with high expectations but had no political experience. She inherited a treacherous portfolio which could have used a veteran’s touch. Her successor is also a newbie. Karina Gould has impressive international organizational experience which could be a useful training ground for this tricky portfolio.

In his first wave of American appointments, the cabinet of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump is getting older and whiter.

Neither change should surprise us. Politicians promote those with whom they feel the closest connection.

Young leaders generally encourage younger faces, while older leaders can be more comfortable with those of their own age, gender, and race.

Women often support other women. Leaders hailing from minority communities work hard to recruit those from diverse cultures and races. U.S. President Barack Obama’s cabinet was a reflection of his own personal life experience.

Hillary Clinton surrounded herself with strong women and her team reflected a real gender change that, had she won, would have radically changed the face of the American administration.

Trump is a white, 70-year-old business man. It should surprise no one that most of those whom he has elevated to his cabinet are white businessmen.

For those Americans witnessing the changing face of Washington, it must be tough to see so few minority appointees at the table. It is as though the last 30 years of civil rights progress has been erased and Jim Crow is back to rule the roost.

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Raitt needs O’Leary to split Blue Tory vote

0 Comments 16 February 2017

Lisa Raitt is banking on social media technology and new recruitment techniques, to swell Red Tory, anti-O’Leary ranks within the party with online recruitment. In so doing, she is well-positioned to become everyone’s second choice.


Published first on Monday, January 9, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—Lisa Raitt’s campaign to stop Kevin O’Leary was brilliant.

It vaulted her to the front of the news cycle during a January political lull. It also set her up as a foil to the Trump-like tendencies of some of the Blue Tories who are already in the race or thinking of joining.

It would be folly to assume that Raitt does not want O’Leary in the race.

A good part of her message last week targeted Kellie Leitch, and the controversial proposed citizenship test of Canadian values.

Raitt needs O’Leary in the race to split the Blue Tory vote.

If that sounds complicated, two voting rules guarantee a campaign roller coaster ride in the months leading up to the May vote.

First, the Tories have adopted preferential balloting, which means that voters will actually rank their preferred candidates.

Ironically, that same system was one of the options proposed to replace the first-past-the-post general election vote, without much support from the Conservative Party.

The new system means the winner may not be the first choice of the greatest number of voters, but rather the second choice of the majority.

If this sounds complicated, it is one of the reasons that most people exit the conversation when the subject of electoral reform is broached.

But the peregrinations are compelling for political animals who follow leadership conventions with the same passion the rest of us reserve for hockey championships.

The greater the number of leadership candidates, the more Raitt needs to divide the vote in order to come up the middle. 

In other words, she needs the blunt force trauma that O’Leary’s candidacy would ignite to limit the potential migration of Blue Con votes to Leitch.

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The Walrus Talks National Tour: We Desire a Better Country

0 Comments 06 February 2017

Walrus Talks National Tour (cartoon graphic)The Order of Canada and the Walrus Foundation are jointly presenting The Walrus Talks Conversations About Canada: We Desire a Better Country, a national tour featuring 50 members of the Order and 50 youth leaders to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

“This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Order of Canada, one of our country’s highest honours,” said Governor General David Johnston. “Its motto, Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam (They desire a better country), is the source of inspiration for this one-of-a-kind speakers’ series. The diverse and compelling examples of excellence that it will showcase will inspire Canadians and invite them to imagine the Canada of tomorrow.”
The tour runs from March 1 to June 1, 2017 in 13 provinces and territories in just 13 weeks. The tour will connect members of the Order of Canada and Canada’s next generation of young leaders with communities across Canada on what our future as a country could and should be.

All of the events will be streamed live online and rebroadcast by CBC Radio and CPAC.

For tour dates and ticket information, visit


Book Launch: They Desire A Better Country

0 Comments 01 February 2017

They Desire a Better Country (book cover)Who belongs to the Order of Canada?

The Governor-General’s office and the publisher, Figure.1, have brought together 50 stories of those who proudly wear the snowflake insignia in one book, They Desire A Better Country: The Order of Canada in 50 Stories.

This anniversary collection tells the stories of just 50 of the nearly 7,000 remarkable individuals who collectively hold Canada’s highest civilian honours.

Written by Lawrence Scanlan and translated by Daniel Poliquin, O.C., this book is about Canadians of every age, from coast to coast to coast, and celebrates the breathtaking diversity of Canadian achievements, all of which have made a lasting impact on our country.

This book will be available for purchase in February 2017. Every living member of the Order will receive a copy as will every high school and library system in the country.


10 Days To Change the World: Attend the World Design Summit

0 Comments 25 January 2017

World Design Summit Montréal 2017

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Trudeau gets more done outside QP than inside

0 Comments 16 January 2017

Trudeau speaking with aboriginal leaders on the issue of murdered and missing aboriginal women is a lot more positive than taking questions on the issue in the House of Commons.


First published in The Hill Times on Monday, December 19, 2016.

OTTAWA—Question Period is the one hour a day that belongs to the opposition.

So it is understandable that opposition members should chastise the prime minister for skipping the majority of Question Periods in his first year on the job.

But it is also the reason that Justin Trudeau used his first year in office to focus on a national and international profile.

And that profile is not built during Question Period. If anything, opposition members work overtime to figure out a way to get the prime minister on his feet during QP. Success in getting a rise out of the leader pretty well guarantees that the issue will make the news, and usually in a way that puts the government in a negative light.

Last week The Huffington Post did a little digging to analyze the attendance of Trudeau and compare it to that of his predecessor, Stephen Harper. Harper’s QP attendance was better than that of Trudeau. The former prime minister did not attend 46 per cent of the sessions, while Trudeau actually missed 58 per cent.

To be fair, the Huff Post reported that two-thirds of Trudeau’s absences involved official events in other parts of the country or the world. But it noted that, in some circumstances, Trudeau scheduled events in Ottawa that coincided with QP.

Obviously, Trudeau’s communications team has figured out the obvious, that the prime minister’s message passes more effectively in fora outside Question Period just as the opposition message passes more effectively in QP.

But Trudeau is not the only one who skips the 2:15 p.m. daily grilling. On most days, the press gallery set aside for members of the media is usually empty, as reporters choose to cover the event from their bureau offices.

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Electoral reform will not happen in this Parliament

0 Comments 09 January 2017

The toughest political nut to crack is changing the voting system. It is not for the faint of heart, or the novice. Voting changes have been entertained multiple times in Canada. Thus far, none have succeeded.


First published in The Hill Times on Monday, December 12, 2016.

OTTAWA—I took the voting test and discovered what I already knew. According to the online government survey, managed by Vox Pop, I am a pragmatist.

The pragmatist in me says electoral reform is dead.

Its public interment by the minister responsible for democratic reform was not a pretty sight.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef arrived in Parliament with great promise. She is fresh and authentic, two qualities that should have stood her in good stead in a tough portfolio. But what she made up for in enthusiasm, she lacked in experience.

The toughest political nut to crack is that of changing the voting system. It is not for the faint of heart, or the novice.

Voting changes have been entertained multiple times in Canada. Thus far, none have succeeded.

Back in March of 2004, the Law Commission of Canada recommended a change to the mixed member proportional system. That autumn, in the speech from the throne, the government promised to follow through with reform.

Multiple options were subsequently studied by a citizens’ consultation group, and a House of Commons committee, but in the end the current system prevailed.

British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick have all taken a look, and decided against change. In two provinces, voters made the decision directly through a referendum.

In the rest, the politicians took a pass.
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