Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

The Good, The Bad, and the Igly0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Friday March 31, 2006 at 1:22 am)

In preparation for his stab at the prize, Liberal leadership hopeful Michael Ignatieff floated a big balloon on Thursday.

There’s a lot about the event that was very good:

Ignatieff spoke at the University of Ottawa, a suitable and friendly environment for an academic. Debate may be fierce (and there were a few protestors), but give academics the chance to see one of their own number climbing towards power and they come over gushingly adoring (comparisons to Trudeau abounded).
Some might question the idea of making a major declaration of principle in advance of entering the race. After all, if you’ve already decided to run, why wait until after a policy statement to announce your candidacy? There’s a bit of security in Ignatieff’s approach. Having let a few of his policies out, he can gauge public reaction and recalibrate the messages to work better in his announcement.
Ignatieff has been criticized for spending so much time outside of Canada. Beginning his speech with the old (stale and pathetic) standby of his childhood and family, he took the opportunity to emphasise his time in the country and met this criticism head-on. Taking the initiative on this point away from his opponents is a big win.

But for all that, there were some serious problems. The perception of Ignatieff as hawkish and conservative won’t be softened by a speech which reminds the public of his approval of the Iraqi War. He tried to soften the blow with a reference to “just” wars and his own work with the United Nations, but the discussion of the “responsibility to protect” is too technical and complex an issue to be properly digested and does nothing to limit his hawkishness when he allows for wars approved by:

  • The UN


But there are problems other than policy points. The bad:

Debating Demons
The demonization of Stephen Harper was a prime Liberal strategy in the last two elections. It wasn’t good enough, and time with Harper in power will likely serve to reduce its effectiveness. Nevertheless, Ignatieff twice relied on this technique: attacking Harper’s Quebec policy as being favoured by sovereigntists and claiming that Harper supports a growing divide between rich and poor (a “sauve qui peut” Canada). Should the candidates spend time attacking the government? Absolutely. But doing so, like the campaign, requires substantive attacks, not more vague assertions. Given the lack of specifics in his own speech and the brevity of the government’s term thus far, Ignatieff’s sole substantial complaint, ambiguous policy, comes off somewhere between hypocritical and hypercritical. That’s not where he wants to be. If this is his approach to opposition, it bodes ill.
Intergovernmental Impossibilities
Ignatieff calls, prudently, for multi-year agreements to stabilize intergovernmental funding. Unfortunately, the nature of Parliamentary government means that governments can’t guarantee that pledge: they can only pledge to try to make it happen. It’s not a question of fluctuating revenues — it’s the fact that government can’t bind Parliament’s hands. And it is Parliament that has the right to allocate funds. Attempts to set up long-term funding formulas are always subject to budget votes and changes in government. It’s a promise that can’t really be delivered, and that’s why it’s a poor solution for instability in federalism. The fact that Ignatieff doesn’t seem to realize that suggests a poor appreciation of the political realities of federalism.
Indistinct Ideas
While he claims repeatedly to differ from Harper, his vague presentation of his positions leave little but that claim to distinguish his own political positions from those of the Conservatives. He calls for Kyoto targets to be met (easy to call for, virtually impossible to do), while the Conservatives have recently suggested the targets won’t be met. Is that really enough? The public needs something real to hang on to, and Kyoto has probably been beaten around for too long to serve the purpose.

But the biggest problem is the speech itself. It’s not a bad speech — really. It’s carefully written and not too difficult to follow. Of course, it’s a speech. It’s a set of prepared remarks, rather than a conversation, interview or response. If it weren’t properly drafted, he could fire the speechwriter. He won’t have that option in dealing with the press, and the speech doesn’t suggest that he’s rolling off positive, resonant, and witty messages.

Consider, in closing, the theme he chose: Canadians as a “serious people”. Is that supposed to suggest that Canadians are receptive to serious discussion, paving the way for Ignatieff to stop bothering with interesting or exciting oratory? Is it supposed to appeal, basely, to their egotism — if so, isn’t there a better epithet than “serious”? Is it supposed to inspire them — to what?

Most likely, it’s the first: a plea for the patient attention which rambling policy demands. The Cold Hard Wonk wouldn’t mind a bit of the same; but then, the Wonk doesn’t need it to keep going. If Michael Ignatieff does, he’s not the man to lead the Liberals. Perhaps they should take the advice he carelessly offered midspeech:

Let’s follow Stephan Dion’s leadership and do what we have to, right away

Taken out of context? Only very slightly:

Let’s follow Stephan Dion’s leadership and do what we have to, right away, to meet our Kyoto commitments.

Unless it’s a subtly prophetic announcement for a would-be rival, that phrase should never have been allowed to remain in the speech.

Is there time for Ignatieff to improve? Of course there is, that’s why this speech was made first. But there’s not a lot yet to indicate that the major objections to the man’s leadership are being dealt with; and that’s just plain ugly.

Don’t Flush The Messenger0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press (Tuesday March 28, 2006 at 1:49 pm)

There are many examples of divine intervention through the aquatic world. A great fish swallowed Jonah, the first incarnation of Vishnu was a fish, and we may perhaps even count the fish responsible for the deforestation of the Arctic.

But the latest example gives some cause for pause.

As the National Post reported on page A3 yesterday, the appearance of the word “Allah” on the side of a goldfish in Lancashire has been considered a divine message.

But what is the message, exactly? That God exists? Isn’t that a given for anyone who might be interested in such a fish in the first place? Do the faithful really need scribbled messages on lower vertebrates to prove the point?

More to the point, does the obsession with objects of this kind distract us somewhat from the good works which religion at its best evokes and instead emphasise the formalistic devotion for which it is so often scorned?

And besides: if these are messages rather than coincidences, wouldn’t it suggest that the gods are a bit self-obsessed?

Cat’s Out of the Bag0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Strategic Planning (Tuesday March 28, 2006 at 12:22 am)

Warren Kinsella doesn’t think much of Michael Ignatieff as a potential leader for Canada’s Liberals.

Mr. Kinsella has been known for theatrics, but his beef with Ignatieff, like his own approach to politics, runs deeper.

Kinsella objects to the would-be-leader’s ideology, as can be discerned from his academic work, and his poor performance in dealing with opposition early in his political career.

More than anything else, Kinsella points out how easily a few choice lines on controversial subjects can snowball into serious problems. And having done just that to Stockwell Day, Kinsella should know what it takes to take someone down with a few well-selected quotes.

But doesn’t it matter, you might think to ask, what those quotes say?

The hard line on torture proposed by Ignatieff might be anathema to many true Liberals, but then, does the leader need to appeal to those who already support his party, or to those whose support the party has yet to win? It’s clear that some positions can alienate traditional supporters. What isn’t clear is whether Ignatieff’s hawkish stance on international affairs would alienate more traditional Liberal voters than it would bring in in new supporters. What’s more, the Conservatives can’t make much headway in attacking a hawk — the only party with the credentials and position to attack Ignatieff would be the NDP; and it’s uncertain that they can attract many Liberal supporters, who have lately become much less tolerant of the NDP’s fiscal policies.

The question to ask, then, to evaluate Ignatieff based on his academic writing, is whether its content is likely to be successful politically, and not whether Liberals like it. Without trying to answer that question, you can’t tell whether Ignatieff’s policies would help or hinder the party. It’s just not clear that Ignatieff’s past work is the political millstone Mr. Kinsella thinks it is.

But does that mean that he’s wrong? Not really.

The “self-immolation” he’s talking about is there, but it doesn’t stem from the substantive content (however hard it might be for Liberals to gravitate to a hawk while they still seem to consider themselves an opposition to current, American-style hawkishness). Mr. Ignatieff’s appeal to Liberals is part of the party’s quest for an heir to Trudeau. The ring of a Harvard intellectual come home has a definite allure for a party that remembers Trudeau’s genius and often forgets how hard it sometimes was to work with such a man. It’s often said that his Cabinet meetings resembled nothing so much as lectures in advanced theory — only much harder to understand.

What Trudeau had, without question, was a gift for short, witty phrases. The sleeping elephant, state and bedroom, and “just watch me” are undeniably apt, however disagreeable they may be to some.

Michael Ignatieff’s remarks lack that sense of effortless wit. They have a worked and technical feel, without gritty metaphor or heartful humour.

The former draw listeners in. The latter turn them off. If there’s one thing a politician can’t afford to do, it’s faze an audience. It’s not hypnosis, it’s connection. And that’s what Kinsella’s really getting at: Ignatieff seems to suffer from the same disease that took John Kerry — an inability to speak to the people.

Ignatieff won’t have the chance, as Kinsella points out, to explain himself at length while cameras flash and questions fly. He won’t have an audience hanging on his every word, as awestruck students can and jaded voters don’t. In those conditions, every word matters; and Ignatieff’s record isn’t very good.

Just last Thursday, for example, Mr. Ignatieff was overheard discussing his potential flocks:

“What a bunch,” proclaimed Etobicoke-Lakeshore’s new MP, Michael Ignatieff, as he gazed upon the crowd filing into the hall where Copps was being feted. “Can we herd these cats? Yes, the question does occur. Oh sure, these are great cats. These are the best cats there are.”

High-flying academics and management gurus might credit the man with a keen appreciation of modern leadership techniques. “Herding Cats” has been tremendously popular as a 1997 book on management by prominent leadership guru Warren Bennis. It was, of course, an metaphor in its own, independent right, but since that use of the phrase isn’t common in any obvious circles, let’s give him some benefit of the doubt and say he was going with the leadership thing.

Look at the quote and Mr. Kinsella’s point comes into sharp focus. Asked for a general comment about the evening, Ignatieff tries to shoehorn in a complex idea by way of an obscure metaphor. What did his potential opponents come up with?

Bob Rae spoke (concisely) about the difficulty of the choice — a simple ploy reminding the audience that he has a normal life, just like them, and has to make a tough choice over giving it up.

Martha Hall Findlay (declared candidate) admitted she was busy looking for support — no bells, no whistles (no chance).

Ignatieff’s comment might resonate with three groups:

  • Those few sophisticated enough to consume leadership theory but simple enough to feel political solidarity with others because they refer to the same theory
  • Cat lovers who think any reference to the animals is laudable
  • Surviving beatniks

It’s not what you’d call a formidable coalition. To the average voter, the comment is just plain weird. Are Liberals cats? Is Ignatieff a bit too condescending given his choice of metaphor? Are these cats really better than Elton and Pandora?

It’s the most important job for a leader — being the public face of the party. Warren Kinsella is quite right to suggest that Ignatieff doesn’t appear capable of presenting himself properly. It might be a hard sell for a man who left a tenured post for the glamour of national elections, but the cat’s out of the bag, and he should probably be out of the race.

You Load Sixteen Tonnes, Whadda You Get?0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Vague Check (Monday March 27, 2006 at 2:04 pm)

The opposite of what you might expect, actually.

It’s been a hard slog of late for the Liberal Party of Canada, but things aren’t as bad as they sometimes seem.

The Chilly Wonk recently identified the possibility of near-crippling indebtedness as one of the Liberals’ major weaknesses at present.

That posting spurred an inside source to pass the word along: the party’s not as badly off as has been suggested. In particular, while still in debt (and running a deficit, to boot), it’s not more than a few million dollars, which is far from devastating for a political party at this stage in the electoral cycle. Add in the fact that a leadership contest is about to flood the coffers with memberships (at least 100,000 at no less than $5 apiece), and you’ve got a party well on its way to the sunny shores of fiscal solvency.

It doesn’t change the analysis of the Liberals’ throne speech threat. That ploy isn’t much improved by a lower level of party debt — the Liberals still aren’t ready for an election, and neither is the country.

But party workers who slaved in the pits of the last campaign might be glad to know that, another day older, the party’s lesser in debt.

Of course, that’s no defence against . . .

Child’s Ploy0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Thursday March 23, 2006 at 12:53 am)

Now that’s a spicy meatball!

It looks like the new PM is off to a rocky start, what with this ultimatum from the opposition Liberals and Bloc Quebecois. It seems they’ve decided to draw a line in the sand, right through the Conservative plan to cut short the Liberal $1 Billion/annum for child care. But then, this has been threatened for nearly a month.

This isn’t the place to go over the relative merits of the Liberal plan and the Conservative plan (this is) — the real question is: is this the right fight?

Recent coverage suggests that the issue itself might have some attraction for families who prefer the words “national daycare” to the words “payable child benefit”. But if the Liberals are hoping to capitalize on that, they’re probably not thinking too clearly.

Given the amount of attention they drew to the issue in the last campaign, those who were for their vision were likely already with them. It doesn’t matter what a survey says about broad preferences (most might prefer lower taxes to lower fees for government services), because while everyone may have an opinion on the issue, not everyone will decide based on that issue. Besides which, more Quebecois (who are most likely to be affected by the loss of funding) are likely to stand behind the BQ to defend their interests against the federal government, so working with them to achieve the government’s overthrow isn’t going to get the Liberals very much in the one place most likely to respond favorably.

Of course, the Liberals want a fight now — something to prove that they’re still vital and to keep the flames fanned. After all, if they don’t speak up, people will assume they don’t have any complaints, and if they have no complaints, why should they get in? It’s the iron law of opposition.

But is it too much?

Absolutely. They’re not threatening to hold up related government measures, to force through their own agenda on an opposition day, or to bog things down in committees — they’re threatening to bring down the government.

That means another election.

Now consider:

  • The parties went through an election a mere two months ago
  • The election was longer than any in recent memory
  • The Liberal party and the BQ may be deeply in debt
  • The Liberal party is just settling into a leadership campaign, with no leader to come until December

Does that sound like the recipe for a successful election? The Liberals didn’t manage to rile Canadians up about the last election call, eighteen months after the previous one, but the wind-chilled Wonk would wager that the public won’t be as understanding about another election call within three months and before the new government gets to do much of anything.

Given the looming combination of serious backlash and utter unpreparedness, there’s only one reasonable course of action for a government faced with this threat: call their bluff.

The fresh-frozen Wonk doesn’t have a bug in the PMO, but the plan could go something like this:

Call the opposition’s bluff
Let the opposition vote against the throne speech if they like. Remind the public that it’s important for the government to lay out its agenda in Parliament, and that it’s only a statement. Real votes will take place on each measure at a later date — that’s the time for the opposition to raise its voice. Watch the opposition either keep backbenchers out of the House or abstain when voting time comes around. It won’t be the government that ends up looking weak and indecisive. . .
Negotiate with Quebec to roll the amount of the child care money into the Health and Social Transfer
It’s true that the Tories pledged to replace the Liberal program, but they also promised to correct the “fiscal imbalance”. What better way to both placate the Quebec government and get underway on a major election promise? Special super bonus: the government gets things right in the face of a blustering and ineffective opposition.

What of other provinces, you ask? Well, Quebec is the only one that had both already taken the money and used it for a broad-based program (and the money in question constituted around 5% of that program’s government budget). The others had agreed to take it, but were most likely to apply it to improving targetted subsidies and programs for lower-income earners, meaning both that they hadn’t yet had much to lose and that the broad public hadn’t grown accustomed to the benefit.

Ultimately, then, it’s not the fight that’s wrong. There’s still an argument to be made for a public program as against the Conservative proposal for a tax incentive and cash payment. The problem is the way they’re going about it. You can’t make a threat as severe as the government’s when you can’t afford to carry through on it, and nothing suggests that the Liberals can.

Which leaves only one real possibility — it’s a terrible decision; and what’s worse, the government’s response could be as easy as A-B-C.


Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk (Thursday March 16, 2006 at 11:44 am)

It’s hotting up over at Liberal Party of Canada HQ with the formal announcement of Paul Martin’s resignation. At last, it’s that special time in a would-be leader’s life — that brief span before she becomes a has-been. It’s when, rather than being ignored, he spends his time in a desparate quest for attention. Whose, you ask? Why his future followers.

It’s common wisdom that modern elections are won by leaders and the national campaign. The recent Canadian federal election offered some pretty convincing evidence of that. But even if true, winning is only half the story. Not losing counts, too; and as one of the Conservative Party’s predecessors learned, outspoken MPs can do it.

So, rather than looking at the leadership candidates, let’s see how their future troops perform in the line of fire. Several MPs were interviewed by the Canadian Press, and a few of their comments on the leadership contest were published:

MP Derek Lee (Scarborough-Rouge River) remarked on the value of an MP to a would-be leader:

If you have a MP supporting you, you have an experienced political operative on your side, and the MP might attract other people to your team as well. . .Having an MP with you is like having a little poker chip.

The Frosty Wonk’s not too sure about that metaphor for political operatives. Poker chips may be experienced, but only the dealer gets tips from them. But then, is he on to something? Can MPs represent something valuable without being worth anything themselves? Mr. Lee’s own history suggests that he might believe just that very thing.

In 2004, city councillor Raymond Cho took a run at Lee’s seat, describing himself as an “independent liberal”. Mr. Lee alleged then that Mr. Cho was trying to mislead voters, notwithstanding that Mr. Cho was both an independent candidate and a member of the Liberal party. But of course, if Mr. Lee (who has held the riding since its inception in 1988) has things right, no one’s ever voted for him (despite his good works) — they just vote for the Liberal party which he represents.

So, some good advice for candidates, courtesy of Derek Lee and Kenny Rogers: never count your supporters while they’re sittin’ in the bleachers, there’ll be time enough for countin’ them when the voting’s done.

Nova Scotian MP Robert Thibault deserves a special reward for what must be the best damning praise in Parliamentary prose since a member forced himself to deny that his opponent had even 50 Billion neurons:

To me the candidate has to be bilingual. Harper has established a minimum standard of bilingualism.

And only a minimum. Well-put, M. Thibault. Now explain this: if the party has had a Maritimer of such refined and subtle wit since 2000, why were they relying on a floor-crossing sycophant to do their dirty work? Maybe he just has the grace and self-confidence to refuse such ill-conceived assignments. Kudos.

Bryon Wilfert, MP for Oak Ridges, won’t be easily satisfied:

I want to know what they have to say on policy, the role of the prime minister’s office and the roles of members of Parliament.

So. . .he wants to hear everything they have to say. That’s certainly newsworthy. Perhaps next time he’ll hit Thibault’s aides up for a quip.

But let’s leave on a positive note. Ruby Dhalla, MP for Brampton-Springdale, has more particular requirements:

The leader should be representative of the new face of Canada, have fresh new ideas, and a fresh new vision . . . ensuring we’re able to compete globally.

New isn’t good enough — it needs to be fresh. And not just because the Liberals need to compete with the Conservatives, no. After all, when we think of our overseas competitors, be they the Chinese , Indian, or Oil-Rich Kingdom, we think “fresh” and “new”. Wasn’t it exactly this kind of unreflective dispensation of feel-good buzzwords that headlined the floundering Liberal campaign? Super. The lessons of the election have been learned.

A mixed bag, at best. But it’s good to see that there’s some talent on the Liberal benches, however well-concealed. It must be a concern, though, that so many non-contending members would rather play it safe than provide even the slightest glimpse into their beliefs and risk someone disagreeing. That overwhelming craving for others’ love and its companion, a pathological fear of their disagreeing is the most superficial kind of politics and was one of the Liberals’ greatest flaws under Paul Martin. It resulted in seat-of-the-pants policy shifts and the moniker “Mr. Dithers”.

If this article was merely unrepresentative, if the quotes selected owe their trite blandness to editorial choice, the Liberals aren’t much better off. A spell in opposition is a fantastic opportunity for them to gauge public response to a variety of new directions; and there’s no reason why an MP shouldn’t be representative of her party. Are the Liberals adopting Stephen Harper’s non-disclosure policy? Are there any other Conservative policies they’ll be taking up? We’ll have to wait for the new leader to get the whole story.


Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Strategic Planning, Crossroads of Culture (Tuesday March 14, 2006 at 11:05 pm)

It seems like only last year that Canada’s Prime Minister was sashaying his way through a choreographed visit to Asia. Ah, but like a junior high box step, a year’s time hasn’t moved things along very much. The new Prime Minister has made his way to Asia; and though the trips might seem different, the most significant change is the quality of the choreography.


Paul Martin’s Trip vs. Stephen Harper’s Trip

  • Destination: Indonesia/Afghanistan
  • Area’s Woes: Tsunami/Post-War Insurgency
  • Canadian Presence: Troop Deployment/Troop Deployment
  • Canadian Casualties: 260/30

Yes, that last one’s right. Canadian fatalities in Afghanistan (which have reached eleven) combined with injuries are significantly less than the total dead and missing from the 2004 Asian Tsunami. Let’s just ignore the fact that about a third of those fatalities (four) have come from accidents and friendly fire.

There is one crucial difference: the Indonesian mission was a response (effective or not) to a humanitarian crisis. The Afghan mission is follow-up (effective or not) to a war in which Canada was involved. By visiting Indonesia, Paul Martin was associating himself with a sense of Canada as nursemaid to the world. Harper’s visit associates him with a sense of Canada as a policeman to the world.

Law and order vs. health and welfare? Sounds like a traditional display of respective party values, and it largely is. But though these moves might attract different partners, the steps are pretty much the same.

Paul Martin’s trip was closely choreographed. It was quick, made for a select media audience, and rejected both interview questions and independent journalists, as handily documented in famed videography. The only strategic failure was, in fact, the release of that video and the (limited) reaction.

Prime Minister Harper’s trip is, by all accounts, quite different. He’s been photographed extensively interacting with troops, something which Martin kept to a minimum. The visit lasted almost two days, while Martin’s visit was as brief as could be managed (less than a day). But in truth, it’s just as managed (surprise, surprise!)

The quotes splashed across this morning’s National Post, and widely reported were from a planned speech, rather than responses to specific questions. Reporters seeking elaboration had to go through the Prime Minister’s aides, as reported in the Toronto Star’s coverage.

Shocking? Surprising? Not really. Foreign visits, like dance clubs, can be great places to show off; but the risk of foolish missteps rises with the opportunity for success. Politicians can be forgiven for practicing their moves and keeping them tight.

What’s the point?

If Martin’s carefully-crafted Kecak was a metaphor for his overwrought and passionless campaign, Harper’s uptight attan reflects his broader policy on the mission: keep it closed — no debate.

And that’s just wrong in both cases.

In Afghanistan, Harper has a supportive and welcoming posse of soldiers, a clear message, and rock-solid support. Are there really topical questions that can embarrass him under the circumstances? Is any Canadian reporter really going to tear into the mission in front of the soldiers? More importantly, what better response could the PM have than a strong reply with young, cheering servicemen and women at his back? Do what you will with the quality of the response, it plays well to the only groups he can hope to hit with this trip: the pro-military lobby and those who need evidence of his passion.

At home, the Conservatives’ anti-discussion message does two disservices to the armed forces. Peter McKay’s suggestion that debate would undermine troops’ morale is insulting to the very troops the Tories claim to support. The six-month reviews hinted at by Harper would be improved by a meaningful debate, undertaken at the government’s initiative, in which the government makes the case for the current deployment, rather than continuing, weakly, to shift responsibility to the commanding Generals and the decision of the former government.

Granted, there’s nowhere for pro-military voters to go. The worst-case scenario for the Tories is for those voters to stay home, not for them to shift. Those who object to the mission aren’t going to stay mum just because the government doesn’t want to debate with them; and there’s nothing to be done about that but taking the initiative. The Tories are playing it safe by not taking a strong stance on the mission and crying patriotic support in lieu of debate.

Playing it safe isn’t a sound strategy. Voters who decided to try them out in the last election won’t be impressed by inaction or reaction. The Conservatives’ controlled election strategy let them set the agenda and spread a substantive message without fear of contradiction. The current strategy of control leaves the agenda in others’ hands — it hugs the rail. Hugging the rail didn’t work for the Liberals, and it’s hard to see what inroads the Conservatives expect to make by it.

The answer is to do what worked for them in the election — take the initiative. There will be opposition and there will be debate, but if the Tories take a stand, they can frame it to their advantage and still pull out at the end of Canada’s six-month term with the dignity of a job well done. The stand isn’t “no debate”. It has to be about the difference to be made in Afghans’ lives and Canadians’ role in that project. A grateful Afghan President is ready to help make that case; and the Tories should take him up on it.

In other words, it’s time to change choreographers. Hands at sides, shifting weight doesn’t fly in high school — it doesn’t fly in office either. If the Tories want to hang on to government, they need to strut their stuff. Going to Afghanistan shows they know they’re in the show. Let’s see whether they can dance.