Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Do federal by-election results provide clues to looming 2015 tilt?

Four federal by-elections were held last night, with the Conservatives holding two seats in Alberta (Macleod and Fort McMurray-Athabaska) and the Liberals retaining another in Ontario (Scarborough-Agincourt).

The remaining bout saw the Grits capture an Ontario riding (Trinity-Spadina) from the New Democrats. Created in 1988, the seat has been contested in general elections on eight occasions, and the NDP (Dan Heap and Olivia Chow) and Liberals (Tony Ianno) each have won four times.

During the current parliament (the 41st), 13 by-elections have been held to date, of which the governing Conservatives have won six; the Opposition New Democrats, two; and the Liberals, five.

Do the results so far offer any insight into the next federal general election, slated for October 2015?

Conservatives. Seven of the 13 by-elections have been held in seats the Tories captured in the 2011 general election – three in Alberta, two in Manitoba, one in Ontario, and another in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The governing party has retained all of their ridings save the one in Atlantic Canada (Labrador), which Conservative newcomer Peter Penashue took in the previous general election by a mere 79 votes. Historically a Liberal stronghold, it was no surprise that the seat reverted to the Grits in a by-election necessitated by the incumbent’s election-expense irregularities.

While pundits have predicted by-election upsets in several Tory-held ridings (notably Calgary Centre, Brandon-Souris and Fort McMurray-Athabaska), the Conservatives usually have prevailed by fairly comfortable margins. (The exception, Brandon-Souris, was held by just 389 votes – or 1.4 percentage points.)

If by-elections are opportunities for voters to express their wrath for the governing party, it seems there is little to suggest a widespread, white-hot burning anger towards the Conservatives.

Indeed, at this point it looks like Stephen Harper’s Tories may hold onto most of the seats they took on the Prairies and rural Ontario in 2011. Defeat for the government does not yet appear imminent, although the prospects for a second consecutive majority remain uncertain.

New Democrats. The New Democratic Party stunned much of Canada in 2011 by winning a record-high 103 seats and forming – for the first time in history – the Official Opposition. Remarkably, the NDP captured 59 of Quebec`s 75 seats as the Bloc Quebecois was reduced to a paltry four MPs.

Ontario and British Columbia are the New Democrats’ other bastions; in 2011 they took 22 seats in the former province and 12 in the latter. The party holds seats in the low single-digits in most of the remaining provinces and territories.

The NDP held three of the 13 federal ridings that have featured by-elections since the last general election: the party retained two (Toronto-Danforth – previously represented by Jack Layton, the party Leader whose untimely death in the summer of 2011 rocked the country – and Victoria) but failed to hold the third (Trinity-Spadina).

The by-election results appear less-than encouraging for the New Democrats – besides the two victories, the party has finished second four times, but third or even fourth in the remaining seven tilts.

Far from building on their spectacular breakthrough in 2011 and aiming to form government in 2017, it now appears that the Thomas Mulcair-led NDP must fight a rear-guard action just to consolidate their status as the Official Opposition.

In Quebec and Ontario, the New Democrats’ main foe is the Liberal Party; in B.C., the party must battle both the Grits and the Greens. (The Green Party finished a close second in the Victoria by-election and appears to be competitive in several Vancouver Island ridings.)

Liberals. Three by-elections have been held in seats won by the Grits in 2011; the party retained all three and picked up two more – one apiece from the Conservatives and NDP.

Indeed, not only have the Liberals finished first on five occasions, they’ve been runner-ups six other times.

In 2011, Canada’s once-natural governing party suffered its worst election result since Confederation – capturing just 34 seats and falling to third-party status in the House of Commons. Under former Leader Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals took a mere dozen seats in Atlantic Canada, 11 in Ontario, seven in Quebec, and a measly four in the Prairies and B.C.

The party’s fortunes, as is evidenced by the recent by-election results, clearly seem to be improving under Justin Trudeau’s leadership.

Will that momentum continue through the next federal general election? A majority government looks to be out of reach – the Grits would have to skyrocket from 34 seats in 2011, to at least 170 in 2017 – and even a minority seems incredibly optimistic.

Official opposition may be a more realistic objective, which suggests that a Liberal-NDP battle is looming for the fall of 2017.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Northern Gateway decision gave BC Liberals opportunity to ‘bury’ report on Virk misconduct

Nearly thirteen years ago, on September 11, 2001 in New York City, two hijacked passenger jets slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, in London, Jo Moore, a former Labour Party press secretary who was working in British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government, watched the event unfold on television. She promptly sent an email to colleagues which read: ‘It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.’

Moore lost her job after the email was leaked to the news media. Yet political operatives around the world appreciate her insightful observation – a good day to get out ‘bad’ news is when it likely will be overshadowed by more important (or calamitous) news occurring that same day.

British Columbians saw the strategem at work – by Christy Clark’s BC Liberal government – on Tuesday, June 17. That was the day the federal government was expected to announce its decision to approve Enbridge Inc.’s controversial Northern Gateway Pipelines project.

News producers and assignment editors across the country – and especially in B.C. – had reporters at the ready. Commentators and ‘experts’ were lined up to offer their opinion on what it all meant.

Would this be a ‘good’ time for the Clark Liberals to get out some ‘bad’ news, in the hope that it might be eclipsed by the pipeline announcement? So it seems.

The Northern Gateway decision was scheduled for release shortly after the financial markets closed for the day (4:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time; 1:00 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time).

Shortly after 1:00 pm in Victoria, the government’s communications shop put out a news release with the innocuous headline ‘Kwantlen Polytechnic executive compensation review released.’

There was much more to it than that, of course. For, before he entered politics in 2013, Amrik Virk, the Minister of Advanced Education, had been a political appointee to the board of governors at the very same Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Along with others at the university and on the board, Virk had schemed to find a way to boost compensation for an incoming Kwantlen president that was far in excess of government guidelines.

That extra compensation, moreover, was ‘hidden.’ Kwantlen reported it, not – as was required – in reports submitted to the Public Sector Employers’ Council, but as a ‘supplier contract’ under the Financial Information Act.

The issue was raised numerous times this spring in the Legislative Assembly by David Eby, the NDP critic for advanced education, and other New Democrats. (The Pacific Political Report, Vol. 02, Issue 09.)

Two investigations into the matter were launched as a result. One, by B.C.’s Auditor General, is not yet complete; the other, by a government assistant deputy minister, was released coincident with Ottawa’s Northern Gateway decision.

That latter report confirms that Virk was a willing participant in Kwantlen’s deliberate breach of the government’s reporting laws. In a nutshell, it is clear that the cabinet minister who now oversees the province’s colleges and universities has been caught deliberately skirting the legal and ethical rules that govern those very same colleges and universities.

Will Virk keep his cabinet post given his troubling conduct as a member of Kwantlen’s board?

He should not, but given the way that the government attempted to ‘bury’ the report that conclusively proved his ethical lapse, it appears that Premier Clark is in no hurry to ask for his resignation.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Edwardson messes up with Finance news release

If there was one – just one – government department that might be expected to be unfailingly accurate in its news dissemination, the Ministry of Finance is that department.

What to make, then, of a news release issued on May 27 by Jamie Edwardson, the Finance ministry’s Director of Communications? The purpose of the release was to note the death of Hugh Curtis, a veteran MLA for Saanich and the Islands.

First elected to the Legislative Assembly as a Progressive Conservative in 1972, Curtis subsequently joined the Social Credit Party and was re-elected in 1975, 1979 and 1983.

When the Bill Bennett-led Socreds swept to power in December 1975, the former Tory was named to cabinet as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and in 1978 he became Provincial Secretary.

In November 1979, following Social Credit’s re-election to government, Curtis was appointed Ministry of Finance. He held the post until August 1986, his tenure lasting for six years, nine months.

Edwardson responded to Curtis’ passing with a news release that quoted his boss, Finance minister Mike de Jong, as saying: “As British Columbia’s longest-serving minister of finance, Hugh Curtis served British Columbians with distinction and dignity in the provincial legislature.”

Fair enough, except that Curtis was not B.C.’s “longest serving” Minister of Finance. Not even close.

The distinction belongs to two men, John Hart and W.A.C. Bennett, both of whom held the Finance portfolio for 19 years, eight months

Hart was Finance minister from June 1917 to August 1924, and from November 1933 until April 1946. Bennett’s tenure lasted from February 1953 to September 1972.

Third on the list is John Herbert Turner. He held the post from August 1887 to August 1898, and from June 1900 until September 1901 – a period of 12 years and three months.

All three – Hart (a Liberal), Bennett (a Social Credit MLA, after first winning election as a Tory) and Turner (who served before organized parties entered the province) – also served as Premier of British Columbia.

Curtis was fourth in length of tenure, slightly ahead of Robert Tatlow, a Conservative. Tatlow was Finance minister under Premier Richard McBride from June 1903 to October 1909 – a period of six years, four months.

Jamie Edwardson, at last report, still had his job. He may expected to be somewhat more careful with future news releases than in the recent past, especially when it comes to quotes he puts in his boss’s mouth.