Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

1+1 = Sunny Skies?0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Brass Tacks (Thursday April 19, 2007 at 3:52 pm)

The problem with simple math is that it’s more complex than you might think. That’s why Jason Cherniak’s recent assertion of impending Liberal success in St. Catherines is as analytically sound as a proof that 1=2.

Here’s the theory:

  • In 2006, the Liberal candidate lost by 246 votes.
  • In 2006, the Green Party candidate received 2,305 votes.
  • Therefore, if a mere 15% of the Green votes switch to Liberal in the absence of a Green candidate, the Liberal candidate wins!

Spotted the fallacy? It’s simple, really. It assumes that the Conservative candidate, now an incumbent, doesn’t gain any votes. Incumbents often do; and absent some sign of real backlash in the area in question or serious nationwide backlash, there’s no reason to suspect that he won’t do as well or better in the next election.

But there’s another one; and this is the point that leads to the serious error of judgment in Jason’s analysis, to wit: the headline:

Dion-May deal pays off in St. Catharines!

It’s wholly within the realm of possibility that 15% of would-be Green voters will trend Liberal. It’s also within the realm of possibility that the Liberals’ effort to court the left end of the spectrum will alienate more centre-right parts of their support. If so, the quasi-coalition could cost more votes than it gains. Not only has he assumed that the Conservatives gain no votes, but he also assumes that neither the Greens nor the Liberals lose any votes.

Assuming that a deal has only positive effects comes down to begging the question, because that’s precisely what you’re trying to prove. It’s as analytically sound as. . .well, thinking it won’t rain because you don’t have your umbrella. Slapping a smile across your face no matter what might help your mood, but it won’t keep you from ending up all wet.

Campaign by Proxy0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant, Crossroads of Culture (Wednesday April 18, 2007 at 2:06 pm)

Attacking your opponent with unfavorable comparisons is a long-standing tradition. Why is it so popular? Simple — having to prove that what someone does is wrong takes far more time and effort than alleging that they act like others with reputations for doing things that are wrong.

The Liberals had a policy, for some time now of anti-Americanism as campaign fodder, especially concentrated on painting the Conservatives as pro-US lackeys in the 2006 campaign, as Canadians deepened their antipathy for the US government. Moderately successful as a last-minute tactic in June of 2004, it was significantly less successful in January of 2006.

But merely alleging a parallel and parallel action are two different things, as the Liberals have now realized. Taking the lead from their purported southern siblings, the Democratic Party, the Liberals will present a motion to require the government to serve NATO allies with Canadian plans for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The political value of which rests on two foundations:

  • The average Canadian likely has trouble distinguishing between the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (and some who can would not separate the two) . As a result, outrage over the situation in Iraq bleeds effortlessly over into Canadians’ impressions of the Afghan mission, particularly considering the dominant amount of airtime the former receives. Every report of Canadian casualties is measured in the context of the conflict they’re not engaged in. Small wonder that, absent any convincing explanation of Canadians’ purpose there (humanitarianism being no less vague than security), the public is closely split on whether the sacrifices are worthwhile.

    In that context, a motion to get out of Afghanistan is pretty much like a motion to get out of Iraq, and the Liberals hope to capitalize on that sentiment. The difference between this motion and earlier efforts is simple: this isn’t about saying no to being there, it’s about ending being there. The latter doesn’t look as negative, and isn’t an instance of saying “no” to foreign allies or badmouthing the mission the Liberals previously approved. Hence, no charges of hypocrisy.

  • Just as importantly, the motion is reminiscent of the Democrats’ bill down south. Not only does that give it the anti-Bush sheen the Liberals have loved to portray, it also rides on the coattails of coverage of that bill. Free publicity is free publicity, and there’s no reason to turn it down.

Just how the government will respond to the motion isn’t quite clear as yet. There’s every chance the motion will be backed by the other parties in the House, so defeating it isn’t likely to be a real option.

But, these more obvious points aside, it’s welcome to see that the Liberals are at last finding common ground with Canada’s largest economic partner and nearest ally.

History History History History. . .0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Tuesday April 17, 2007 at 8:08 pm)

Stephane Dion, the Liberal Party of Canada’s leader, had an excellent opening this week. In response to a suggestion by new Quebec Opposition Leader, Mario Dumont, that negotiations on the constitution are in the offing (of the Atlantic, presumably), Dion put down a foot unused to treading on firm ground. He attacked the Prime Minister’s failure to clearly articulate his own constitutional position:

The thing [Mr. Harper] needs to do to prevent a problem is to speak out and say very clearly which powers, which responsibilities, he wants to transfer from the federal government to the provincial government,” said Mr. Dion in an interview Sunday. “If he continues to be vague and confused, I think it’s not good at all for the country. He owes that to Canadians.

And voiced an opinion strange to Canadians reared on an obsession with constitutional transformation as panacea:

. . .none of these issues that are facing us, including social justice … request a constitutional change to deal with. . .

All of which is good. Very good. Most of Canada is good and sick of debating constitutional issues, which strike them, rightly or wrongly, more as conflict over Quebec’s position in the constitutional order than any necessary transformation of a federal system which doesn’t seem to be falling apart just yet. Where there’s no smoke, there’s no fire, and Dion’s pointing that out both resonates with many Canadians (especially the Maritimers and Ontarians on which the Liberals rely) and gives him a firm, strong, and intelligible stance so sorely lacking in his recent work.

But then this comes along. He’s only just demonstrated an understanding — not of the constitution, as some have suggested — of the population’s attitude towards the constitution: “We like it, now shut up and govern.” How to follow that up? By trying to cast himself as a constitutional defender:

He noted, too, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other cabinet ministers have been conspicuously absent from charter commemoration events.

“I think every Canadian prime minister ought to make a point of publicly celebrating the charter,” he said.

One step forward, one back. What Canadians want, and let’s be clear about this, is not politicians outdoing themselves with displays of symbolic love. Neither is it blustering claims to establish their credentials as constitutional defenders. Paul Martin tried both, giddily claiming that Stephen Harper didn’t love Canada, and then proving his constitutional cred by offering up a clause of it on the altar of its own protection. Neither worked out very well for him.

To show so immediately keen a grasp on the right constitutional tack one day and show just the opposite the next is not a positive sign of much. Canadians are not afraid of losing the Constitution — they want politicians to follow it, not prate on about it.

At best, it shows that Dion is intuitively capable of resonating with the public, but incapable of deploying his natural understanding in strategic ways. Hence, a superb response to someone else’s statement, followed by a badly managed statement of his own.

At worst, it shows that what’s come before may come again. And this isn’t the first time that history is repeating itself with M. Dion, either.

Hopes and Dreams1

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Blue Nose, Warm Heart (Friday April 13, 2007 at 9:35 am)

What Stephane Dion hopes to accomplish by not running a candidate against Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in the next election:

  • Prove his committment to the environment
  • Show that he’s capable of working with others

What Stephane Dion inadvertently says by doing it:

  • The Greens are a better choice than the Liberals if you’re environmentally-minded
  • The Green Party, rather than his own party, tells him what to do

Does no one remember the last time a Liberal leader tried to look multilateral and advertised his party as a second choice? That didn’t work out quite so well.

Nevermind the fact that, in addition to his own team’s inevitable pratfalls during the coming campaign. Dion can now also be hounded for every Green Party gaffe, like Vancouver-Kingsway hopeful, Kevin Potvin, a 9/11 conspiracy theory supporter who declared the World Trade Centre’s descruction fist-pumpingly beautiful in 2002. The National Post has the jump on this by juxtaposing the two stories in today’s ‘News’ section. Naturally, M. Dion won’t be receiving credit for the Greens’ insights.

Of course, the Greens may reciprocate by not running a candidate in Dion’s riding of Saint-Laurent-Cartierville, which may be the second-safest Liberal seat in the country. In 2006, Dion won his seat with more than 50% of the total votes cast and an 18,000-vote margin over his nearest rival. Not having to face the Greens will have about as much electoral impact as sailing an unmarked paper boat down the St. Lawrence, but without any comparable aesthetic merits.

Considering all of which, one question remains:

Is the outside chance of embarrassing Peter MacKay worth any of those downsides?

A Long Time is Four Months in Politics0

Posted by JJ in Hats Off, Gentlemen (Thursday April 12, 2007 at 10:23 am)

Opportunista par excellence Belinda Stronach has announced her departure from politics. Last Christmas (the Frosty Wonk’s heart’s just dripping with familial warmth), between the lights and roaring fire of the hearth, her father asked her to take a multi-million dollar executive position with his multi-billion dollar company — for the good of the family.

It took her four months to think “long and hard”, before her dimming prospects at a quick route to the top in politics paled before the bright lights of the quick route back to the top in business.

This may prove to be nothing more than a temporary withdrawal until the time seems right. Only time will tell. After all, Belinda categorically denied her interest in the leadership of the new Conservative Party when she was busy working on its merger, only to run for that post weeks later; and claimed that her last-minute crossing of the floor in 2005 was based purely on longstanding differences with her party, notwithstanding the timing of the event and the front-bench ministerial post she instantly assumed. Why should her decision to be “involved in a different way” be any more certain than these pronouncements?

Apart from unnecessary and scurrilous news stories, Canadians aren’t likely to notice Belinda’s absence from national politics all that much. Magna shareholders, on the other hand, may want to ask one important question:

How suitable for a senior leadership post is someone who takes four months to make a decision?

La Belle Province No More0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Vague Check, Strategic Planning, A House Divided, All Politics (Wednesday April 11, 2007 at 3:41 pm)

Liberal leader Stephane Dion commented yesterday on the recent Quebec election, suggesting that, contrary to many observations, the ADQ’s success in that province poses no threat to the Liberals’ hopes for federal seats.

Per M. Dion:

The votes for (ADQ Leader Mario) Mr. Dumont were in a large part protest votes. . .Mr. Harper [his federal opponent] cannot channel a protest vote because he is the government.”

An argument which could be disputed, to be certain. But that doesn’t undermine Dion’s point. After all, eight of the ten federal seats taken by the Conservatives in Quebec came at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois, not the Liberals. If the Tories continued to snag seats at that stunning pace, the Liberals would lose only one more to them, while possibly gaining a few (Papineau, par example?) back from the BQ.

The ADQ won 37 new seats in Quebec, of which 20 came from the provincial Liberals and 17 from the Parti Quebecois. Those are fairly even numbers, and they mean that, even if the ADQ got some votes from the Liberals as a protest, they could not have achieved their victory without overtaking the PQ — a feat the Liberals had not accomplished in those ridings. If the ADQ poses a worrisome threat, it seems to be more portentous for the separatist parties than for the Liberals.

But if the federal Liberals think they have nothing to fear, they’re wrong. The main reason why they might not recognize the threat is that it didn’t emerge with the recent election, even if the recent election showed some of its symptoms. The real threat is the Liberal Party of Canada’s increasing isolation within Quebec.

Consider this: from 1945 to 1980, in thirteen consecutive elections spanning thirty-five years, the Liberals took fewer than 47 (of 65-75) Quebec seats only twice: once in 1958, when John Diefenbaker swept the country, and again in 1962, when he faced off against an Anglophone Liberal leader, the short-termed Lester Pearson. Over that time, the Liberals took more than 60 seats six times and more than fifty-five nine times. They averaged roughly 53% of the vote in Quebec, hitting a low of 39.2% in 1962 when Pearson first fought Diefenbaker and a high of 68.2% in 1980, when Trudeau returned to champion constitutional repatriation.

Now consider this: from 1984 to 2006, in seven consecutive elections spanning twenty-two years, the Liberals took 36 (of 75) Quebec seats in their best showing — 2000, against Joe Clark (who never did well in Quebec), Preston Manning (who barely spoke French), and Gilles Duceppe (who was scorned for weak campaigning). In four of those campaigns, they failed to win as many as 20 seats, and broke 25 only twice. They averaged roughly 33.5% over that span, hitting a high of 44.2% in the 2000 campaign and a low of 20.7% in 2006 (the second post-sponsorship scandal campaign).

Which shows a significant dip in Liberal fortunes between 1980 and 1984. No points to those who can guess why.

But that’s not all — there’s another interesting point to consider: 21 seats in Quebec are in Montreal. In all but two of the thirteen elections before 1984, the Liberals took a majority of the seats outside of Montreal. In no election since has that happened. In 2000, the Liberals’ best showing since 1980, they managed merely 16 of the 54 seats outside of that City. In five of those seven elections, they did no better than six such seats. The Liberal Party has clearly maintained its former grip on the City of Montreal, but it has lost its strength beyond.

What the numbers show is a far more dangerous threat to the Liberals than anything posed by the ADQ. If the 1997 and 2000 election victories had as much to do with the Bloc Quebecois’s poor campaigning as it did the Liberals’ own performance, then their two positive showings had more to do with the lack of a third option than it did with any efforts of their own.

The Liberals’ best seat total in the latter elections — 36 in 2000 — was eleven seats more than their worst performance in the former — 25 in 1958; but it was achieved with virtually the same percentage of the vote (44.2% vs. 45.6%). Their worst share of the vote in the former elections — 39.2% in 1962 — was only 5% behind their 2000 peak, and better than any other performance between 1984 and 2006.

What this suggests is that the Liberals are a different party in Quebec now than they were before 1984. Before 1984, they could count on taking 50% or so of the Quebec vote and built a majority starting from the roughly 50 seats they expected there. Since then, their expectations should be for roughly 35% of the vote and far too few seats to rest easy before hearing the Ontario numbers.

Since 1984, the Liberals have had to rely on Ontario for their bedrock, and with that under serious attack since the disappearance of the Progressive Conservatives in 2004, there are no signs that this is a sustainable long-term strategy. The West of Canada still looks unwelcoming to what overtures Liberals have made; and the Maritimes hold too few seats for even dominance on the scale of 1997 to make a stand there.

Which means that the Liberals are faced with a serious problem in Quebec — they have lost their long-term stronghold without finding an alternative. If they cannot break out of Montreal in the face of what now seems a second viable alternative to the separatists, they will have to find a new and unfamiliar way to build majorities. And that strange future brings a promise of minority status at best and certain weakness for some time to come.

The Quickstep to Triviality0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Golden Tacks (Tuesday April 10, 2007 at 9:36 pm)

Justin Trudeau’s candidacy in the riding of Papineau is enough to catapult the tidings of his wife’s pregnancy into the national news section of the Globe and Mail, rather than the society page listing to which such information is so richly entitled.

Be on the lookout, then, for other upcoming news items:

  • Harper’s Immovable Hair a Toupee: Mother Unapologetic over Male Pattern Baldness Gene
  • Dion Prefers “Nouilles au Fromage” to “Mac ‘n Cheese”
  • Layton to Shave Moustache in Desperate Bid for Attention

Wait a minute. . .who’s to blame for this nonsense again?

Holding Out on Tenure0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks, Chancellor's Footrule (Monday April 9, 2007 at 3:22 pm)

News that an otherwise stellar academic’s lack of published works was behind the denial of his full professorship is bound to raise concern. After all, why should writing be the hallmark of professorship and tenure when Universities have become much more valued for teaching than research? Perhaps because there is a difference between tenure and professorship.

Tenure is designed to protect the academic from dismissal, preserving her freedom to explore, research, and express novel and unaccepted ideas. Why, then, should we be concerned with protecting the academic freedom of those who restrict themselves to training professionals, rather than participating in the academic discourse in which publication is still the most significant tool?

And, of course, why should the Courts be overruling decisions taken by University officers?

Misdirected Strategy0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Thursday April 5, 2007 at 2:57 pm)

The genius of Liberal strategy rolls on.

Jason Cherniak covers a rally in Toronto yesterday for Liberal Leader Stephane Dion. Bragging in particular about the good response to Dion’s speech — at a rally.

So what’s the problem?

Liberals are still trying to attack the budget
That ship has sailed. Polling suggests that the budget was very well received, and it’s unlikely in that case that there are many votes to be swayed. Those who had a negative impression of the budget amounted to no more than 21%, suggesting that only hardcore partisans were angered.

Let’s be clear: the budget was well-targetted at a group that has been long ignored: the middle class family. There isn’t a lot of political advantage to be taken from attacking the budget as the Liberals have been for weeks without moving the polls. What’s worse, the critiques: “overspending” and “GST cut is a worse choice than income tax cut” don’t really fit with the strong prongs of their campaign message: fairness, environmentalism, and “richness”. Stop talking about the budget and focus on important issues.

Liberals are still attacking politics
Remember when Paul Martin attacked Stephen Harper for putting political ambition ahead of the national interest? Canadians don’t. Why not? Because it’s hypocritical and transparent.

Politicians have packaging and headline-grabbing on the brain, and Canadians know it. Trying to demonize your opponents for playing politics insults the public’s intelligence. Liberals are also devoted to short-term flash at the expense of long-term pain: that’s why the Kyoto Protocol was quickly signed but never properly implemented.

Complaining that Harper is more of a politician than you are is childish, whiny and shrill, and the only votes it gets you are ones you already have. Stop it and think of some real reason to complain — the public won’t do that for you.

Liberals are now attacking themselves
Why take aim at the Clean Air Act when your own party has effectively redrafted it in committee? Do you really want to give the Tories more ammo?

But perhaps the most telling volley from this maginot line of press coverage is the following:

Dion brought up farmers and the wheat board to great applause - in Toronto.

Which leads to one dazzlingly stupid conclusion: Liberals think that Toronto is where they need to win votes.