Trump’s Trade Tribalism

Note this column originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.

US President Donald Trump is living proof that being a good politician often means being a bad economist.

To see what I mean by that just consider Trump’s protectionist position on trade.

This is a stance that drives the majority of economists crazy, since they tend to see freer international trade as a policy that helps makes the entire world a more prosperous place.

And it’s likely economists are right.

Certainly, they can support their pro-free trade stance with tons of studies and statistics and facts.

But none of that matters so much in politics, a sphere where studies and statistics and facts, are no match for emotions.

In other words, it’s emotional appeals, rather than intellectual ones, which motivate voters.

And from an emotional point of view, free trade is a policy that’s easy to attack and difficult to defend.

And that’s because protectionism, which is basically the notion that we should protect our country’s workers from foreign competition, very much appeals to the human race’s inherent tribalism.

Millions of years of evolution have so hardwired humans to be wary and suspicious of strangers from other “tribes”, that we’re naturally receptive to any argument which makes the case that trade with foreigners helps “them” and hurts “us”.

As a good politician Trump is taking advantage of this particular emotional hot button.

In his recent inaugural speech, for instance, he talked about how U.S. trade policy had “enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry” and about how “we’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”

That’s a tribalist appeal if ever there was one.

And so is Trump’s slogan: “Buy American and hire American”.

By the way, if you simply change the “tribe”, that slogan could actually work anywhere.

I mean, if a Canadian politician were to say, “Buy Canadian and hire Canadian”, he or she would surely garner applause.

Indeed, ever since John A. Macdonald and his “National Policy,” Canadian protectionism has always had a tribalist flavor, in that trade tariffs were justified as a way to safeguard Canada’s independence from Americans.

This attitude reached its apex during the 1970s and 1980s, when Liberal governments instituted protectionist measures such as the Foreign Investment Review Agency and the National Energy Program, both of which were specifically designed to limit American economic influence in our country.

In 1988, the Liberals also used fear of Americans to justify their opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as negotiated by the then Progressive Conservative government.

Sounding an awfully lot like the Trump of today, the Liberals back then repeatedly warned that if we signed NAFTA it would transform Canada into an impoverished, exploited economic colony, lorded over by American corporations.

Then Liberal leader John Turner even dramatically accused the Conservatives of “selling Canada out with one signature of a pen.”

Of course, it’s ironic that today the Liberals, who now wholeheartedly support NAFTA, must convince a protectionist US president that freer trade with Canada is actually good thing.

And so far, the Liberal messaging strategy on this issue has been pretty good.

In a statement congratulating President Trump after his inauguration, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted: “Together, we benefit from robust trade and investment ties, and integrated economies, that support millions of Canadian and American jobs. We both want to build economies where the middle class… have a fair shot at success.”

In short, Trudeau isn’t talking like an economist, but like a politician.

His message is basically, we’re from the same tribe, so don’t shut us out.

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Professionals Should Respect Other Professionals

Political professionals — the men and women who work behind the scenes to plot strategy and to make politicians look and sound good – must understand and appreciate the power of emotion in politics, without ever succumbing to it themselves.

But unfortunately, sometimes they do succumb.

A case in point is pollster Bruce Anderson who recently penned a column for Maclean’s magazine which savages the strategies, tactics and methods of political consultant Nick Kouvalis.

Rather than providing a rational analysis of those tactics, Anderson, who uses phrases like “political thuggery” and “low information vote whisperer” when describing Kouvalis, offers readers nothing but an angry rant.

And what seems to anger him the most is that Kouvalis is successful.

Interestingly, he also suggests the media should ignore Kouvalis’s success. (Though ironically, by attacking Kouvalis in Maclean’s magazine, Anderson is giving him more publicity.)

Now maybe I’m old fashioned, but to my mind such an attack is in poor form.

It’s one thing for a pollster or a consultant to criticize a candidate or a politician, but it’s quite another thing to go after someone else in your own discipline.

Certainly, it seems wrong in my mind to use a public forum to harm a competitor’s business or to undermine his or her reputation.

It violates what should be a code of honour, whereby you respect your fellow professionals, your colleagues.

That’s not to say Anderson has to admire Kouvalis or like his tactics, but he should at least gracefully accept the fact that other consultants have the right to conduct their business as they see fit.

Also please note, in his column Anderson does not accuse Kouvalis of doing anything illegal nor does he suggest Kouvalis is cheating in anyway.

Rather what gives him such moral pain is that the campaign Kouvalis put together for Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch is “flimsy and cynical.”

Well, all I can say is if that’s a sin than every political strategist in history is going to hell because those two words can be used to describe virtually all campaigns.

I mean, Justin Trudeau’s strategy of selfies and photo ops isn’t exactly heavy in intellectual content, is it?

Anderson also assails Kouvalis for exploiting “fears and resentments.”

But again, exploiting such emotions is par for the course in politics.

To be logically consistent, Anderson should write a column denouncing other strategists who use similar tactics, such as the ones behind the campaigns of Jean Chretien, Kathleen Wynne, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton to name but a few.

Why single out Kouvalis?

Is it personal animosity? Professional jealousy? Partisanship?

Also, there’s an important ethical question here.

Whether or not you like the tactics he’s crafted for Leitch, Kouvalis is simply doing his job as best he can; he’s trying to give his client her best shot at winning.

That’s what professionals are supposed to do.

Would Anderson prefer it, if Kouvalis took Leitch’s money and then ran a campaign he knew would give her less chance for success?

Wouldn’t that be like taking Leitch’s money under false pretenses?

And let’s not forget a more mundane issue at stake here: It’s simply good business sense to stay on friendly terms with other professionals. After all, it doesn’t really make sense to attack a colleague who might one day want to hire you.

Due to the ever shifting nature of political circumstances, today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally.

So why poison any wells?

Besides, at the end of the day, the market will decide.

If voters find Kouvalis’s tactics unpersuasive or repulsive to, his candidates will lose.

Let wrap this up by saying Anderson isn’t the only professional in the business who engages in public spats with other professionals.

Indeed, it’s a growing trend.

Social media has made such confrontations all too easy.

Yet I still believe it’s unseemly and which I wish it would stop.

And yes, I realize that by criticizing Anderson in this blog I am perhaps violating my own code about attacking professionals.

But then again, in his column, Anderson used negative tactics to attack negative campaigning, so I guess that makes us even in the hypocrisy department.

 

 

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Politics, Potatoes and T-Shirts

This is the month the federal Liberals will make a gut-wrenchingly difficult decision.

And no, I’m not talking about a decision related to foreign policy or to democratic reform or to the deficit; I mean the Liberals face the daunting task of choosing a new design for their official party T-shirt.

To see what I mean just visit the Liberal website which this month includes a survey asking loyal party members to help them choose among “3 amazing T-shirt designs.”

This, says the website, is “a fun and innovative” way for party members to show their support both for “real change” and “for Justin Trudeau”. (It’s also, of course, a fun and innovative way for the Liberals to get donations, since anyone who contributes $99 or more to the party gets a free T-shirt.)

Anyway, I’m bringing all this to your attention because the T-shirt designs on display actually tell us a lot about the Liberal Party’s overall communication strategy.

If you haven’t visited the site, I’ll describe the designs.

One features a photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looking his typically dreamy self; another design simply has two words “More Love”, while the last is basically a line drawing of a blank face topped with Trudeau’s trademark hair style, surrounded by the phrase, “Positive Politics.”

So what does this tell us about Liberal strategy?

Well, it tells us it’s a strategy that can be summed up in three words: vapid, mawkish, and schmaltzy. (For cynics, I’ll add a fourth word: nauseating. I mean, “More Love”! What are the Liberals, a political party or a hippie commune?)

Now, to be fair, cornball communications is not at all that atypical in politics.

The fact is, when conjuring up a political communication strategy, vapid and mawkish is usually the way to go; a political party wants a message that’s both emotive and concise, the fewer words the better.

And the phrases, “More Love” and “Positive Politics”, while certainly sappy, perfectly sum up the Liberal party’s optimistic brand, while their brevity ensures these slogans can easily fit not only on T-shirts, but on bumper stickers, billboards, lapel pins and they make for perfect Twitter “hashtags.”

Plus, as an added bonus “More Love” and “Positive Politics” are terms which distinguish the Liberals from their rival Conservatives, who are generally portrayed in the media as being for “More Hate” and “Negative Politics.”

Yet, what I think is unusual about the Liberal strategy is the way their platitudinous propaganda, which is fine for T-shirt slogans, is permeating all their government communications.

For instance, when our prime minister recently visited China, the Liberal International Trade Minister, Chrystia Freeland, declared the trip a success basically because the Chinese had bestowed upon Trudeau the nickname, “Little Potato.”

In fact, Freeland said she was “quite proud” of the moniker.

Is it just me or does anybody else find that odd?

I mean rather than emphasizing how the trip had advanced Canadian interests, Freeland chose to focus on Trudeau’s nickname, since I suppose she thought it was cute and affectionate and thus matched the Liberal Party’s schmaltzy language.

Mind you, Freeland was just assuming “Little Potato” is an affectionate nickname; for all we know, it might be Mandarin slang for “At least he has nice hair.”

Also, I can’t think of any other world leader offhand who has ever bragged about being called a vegetable.

Still, maybe this will work for the Liberals.

Maybe next year, the Liberals will have a T-shirt, emblazoned with a dreamy looking potato with Trudeau’s trademark hair style, over the words: “Our Prime Minister is Spud-tacular!”

(This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

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Justin Trudeau: Poster Child for Globalism

(Note: This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

If you’re a hip, trendy and fashionable progressive, odds are you’re also a “multicultural globalist.”

Yes, apparently the term “multicultural globalist” – doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? – is now officially a thing.

I first came across this term while reading an article in the journal Politico, in which writer Michael Lind described multicultural globalists as those progressives for whom “national boundaries are increasingly obsolete and perhaps even immoral”.

Lind also adds that for multicultural globalists, “the identities that count are subnational (race, gender, orientation) and supranational (citizenship of the world).”

I’m bringing all this up, because I’d argue that our very own Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is fast becoming the world’s poster child for multicultural globalism.

To see what I mean, just consider his sterling multicultural globalist record since becoming prime minister.

For instance, you could make the case that Trudeau seems to take more pride in being a “feminist,” than he does in being a Canadian. Certainly, when travelling abroad he takes great delight in hammering foreign audiences over the head with his feminist credentials.

And after the Brexit vote, Trudeau reportedly reacted by saying, “I shudder to think what the future of feminism in the UK looks like now that it has chosen to leave the European Union.”

To me, that sure sounds like a “subnational” sort of response.

And as far as the “supranational” citizen of the world bit goes, consider how Trudeau steadfastly refused to brand various ISIS atrocities as “genocide,” until after the United Nations used that word in one of its reports.

My point is Trudeau deferred to the UN, which itself is a monument to multicultural globalism.

Plus, when Trudeau’s not being pro-UN, he’s praising global trade, as he did at the recent “Three Amigos’ Summit”, when he spoke favorably about international trade agreements including NAFTA (a trade deal, by the way, which his own Liberal Party once vociferously opposed).

Now it should go without saying that by taking all these multicultural globalist stances, Trudeau is ensuring that he will become a hero among the world’s cadre of progressive international elitists.

In fact, if there was such a thing as Multicultural Globalist magazine, Trudeau’s face would probably be on every cover.

Of course, the more the prime minister gets drenched with international praise, the more it will help burnish his reputation as a progressive world leader, which will help increase his popularity at home – especially with his fellow multicultural globalists.

Yet, that said, there’s also a potential dark cloud on Trudeau’s globalist horizon.

I say that because the inherent problem with multicultural globalism as a governing ideology, is it can clash with a much older, much more powerful emotional sentiment: nationalism

As Canadian pollster Darrell Bricker recently noted on Facebook, “In the rush to become citizens of the world, political and economic elites forget that the vast majority value their nationhood much more.”

Yes, our sense of “nationhood” matters, even in a multicultural, diverse, relatively new country like Canada.

At any rate, nationalism – which can be defined as the sense that our leaders should care more about “us” than about “them” — is always smoldering within a country’s borders, manifesting itself – sometimes unconsciously — as a wariness of “outsiders”.

And when you take that sense of wariness and mix it in with a dose of economic anxiety and then sprinkle in fear of terrorism, you get Brexit, you get Donald Trump, you get the emergence of nationalistic populist political parties.

In other words, you get a reaction that totally rejects multicultural globalism.

Trudeau would do well to keep that in mind.

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Conservative Rebel

 

(This article originally appeared in the  Ottawa Hill Times.)

Watch out Conservative Party establishment, lurking within your midst is an unabashed, unapologetic, unequivocal rebel, a rebel with a right-wing cause.

I’m talking about Maxime Bernier, whose candidacy for the Conservative Party leadership has taken on the form of an outright assault against traditional Canadian Toryism.

Sounds like fun, right?

Well, before anybody gets too excited, let me remind you that Bernier is only a “rebel” in the Conservative sense, meaning his “rebellion” will be about as exciting as an episode of the old Lawrence Welk Show.

But still, for the politically-inclined at least, it should be fascinating to watch Bernier kick up an ideological ruckus within a party whose motto should be – “Boring is Good”.

Certainly, Bernier’s campaign has been anything but boring.

In a bold move, he’s embraced a Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher style of conservatism, the kind of conservatism which rails against the state’s coercive powers, which believes in maximizing individual freedom, and which would never, ever get caught dead watching the CBC.

In short, it’s the kind of conservatism which hates big government.

Indeed, if you check out Bernier’s Facebook page, you’ll see a meme that claims – “Good government is less government”.

Bernier is also walking the talk; only a few weeks into his campaign and he has already adopted some radically conservative anti-government ideas, such as his pledges to end Supply Management and to scrap the CRTC.

And make no mistake; what Bernier is doing, the kind of conservatism he’s promoting, is a direct challenge to modern-day Tory orthodoxy.

After all, according to the dogma of the Conservative Party’s elites, anti-government conservatism, with its emphasis on free markets and on personal liberty and on smaller government, is supposed to be ideologically more suited for “ruggedly individualistic” Americans, than it is for “peace, order and good government” Canadians.

As former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal once put it, “The deep-seated anti-government bias that often attends upon conservative groups is not central to Canadian Toryism.”

And by “Canadian Toryism” Segal is actually talking about a uniquely Canadian brand of conservatism usually dubbed “Red Toryism,” an outlook that combines reverence for the past with a reverence for acting and talking and sounding like big government Liberals.

Anyway, thanks to Red Toryism, the Conservative Party (and before that the Progressive Conservative Party) has always accepted the status quo when it comes to the size and scope of Canada’s federal government.

Bernier, on the other hand, is brazenly challenging that status quo, which is what makes his leadership bid revolutionary.

By the way, taking on the Conservative establishment in this manner is strategically not a bad idea.

By claiming the mantle of ideological purity and by putting himself on the same philosophic plane as past conservative heroes, Bernier has set himself apart from the rest of the pack.

What’s more, leadership candidates who stress ideology over pragmatism generally attract an enthusiastic following from a party’s core of “true believers,” making it easier to raise money and easier to win over volunteers.

Still, what Bernier is doing also has major risks.

For one thing, his campaign will attract lots of enmity from the powerful and influential Red Tory brigades both inside and outside the party, who will castigate his stances as unConservative if not unCanadian.

And the other, more daunting, challenge for Bernier is that his style of pro-individual freedom conservatism has of late become passé and is actually losing ground all over the world, not only to left-wing socialism, but also to right-wing populism.

So Bernier’s path will be difficult.

But then again, nobody ever said being a rebel would be easy.

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The Summer of Justin

 

The upcoming summer season will be the best of times; it will be the worst of times.

That is, it’ll be the best of times for Liberals and the worst of times for Conservatives and New Democrats.

And I’m not just saying that for the purpose of employing a pretentious literary allusion.

The fact is the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer will create a political environment in Canada that plays to the Liberal party’s strengths and exposes the Opposition parties’ weaknesses.

To see what I mean by all this, let’s first consider the summer situation for the Liberals.

To begin with, it should go without saying that the main strength for the Liberal Party is its leader, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose widely adulated boyish charm has seemingly enthralled the entire nation, if not the whole world.

And, of course, Trudeau is at his delightful best when he’s away from the stifling and stuffy confines of Parliament, with all its stodgy rules and antiquated traditions and outdated protocols.

Sure the prime minister can make the odd news headlines in Parliament by sticking his tongue out at the Opposition or by elbowing an MP in the chest, but for the most part the House of Commons just doesn’t suit his hip and trendy style.

This is why the summer will be so good for the Liberals; the House of Commons will be in recess, meaning Trudeau will be totally free to be Trudeau.

In other words, he won’t have to worry about mundane Parliamentary tasks, such as you know governing the country, and will be able to fully focus all his talents on doing what he does best: posing for photo ops.

Indeed, I suspect over the next few months we’ll be bombarded with a never-ending stream of eye-catching Trudeau images; maybe he’ll be juggling babies at a British Columbia barbecue or gliding along Toronto’s Yonge Street on a skateboard or practicing yoga at Peggy’s Cove.

His options are as unlimited as a child’s (or as a PR flack’s) imagination.

And keep in mind, the summer is jam packed with events overflowing with visual possibilities.

Canada Day, Gay Pride Parades, beach volleyball tournaments – all of them offer a rich backdrop for prime ministerial photo op extravaganzas.

What I’m trying to say here is that summer time equals Trudeau time.

His presence will likely dominate the media, garnering him all sorts of positive, “feel good” coverage.

Yes certainly, the other parties will try to grab their share of media attention but this is where the weaknesses of the Conservatives and NDP come into play.

For instance, the Conservative Party’s interim leader, Rona Ambrose, is a well-respected, thoughtful and experienced parliamentarian.

Or to put it another way, she’s boring.

Then there’s NDP interim (aka “lame duck”) leader Thomas Mulcair, who even at the best of times was known as “Angry Tom.”

Now, after having been unceremoniously and publically rejected by his own party at the last NDP convention, a better nickname for Mulcair might be “Bitter and Angry Tom.”

My point is neither Ambrose nor Mulcair is exactly a photo op magnet.

What’s more, I don’t expect the NDP and Conservatives will make publicizing their “stop-gap” leaders much of a priority this summer.

In fact, both parties will likely spend more time looking inward, mobilizing and energizing their own supporters for impending leadership campaigns.

So Trudeau, almost by default, will basically have the summer field all to himself.

The best Conservatives and New Democrats can hope for is that their political situation will start getting sunnier when our weather starts getting gloomier.

(This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

 

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Forget the Steak, Focus on the Sizzle

 

Anyone out there pondering a career in the exciting world of political communications should first answer the following question which is scientifically designed to test a person’s aptitude for the job.

Which of the following two actions would be more likely to improve a political candidate’s image: A) authoring a 500 page study examining public infrastructure funding or B) posing in a photo op with a pair of adorable panda bears?

If you answered “B”, the panda photo op, congratulations you clearly understand the basic principle of political communication, which is that when it comes to persuasion, people are typically influenced not by intellectual appeals but by simplistic visual imagery.

Simply put, as a species we’re wired to assume that if something glitters, then it’s probably gold.

Certainly this is something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his communications team understands extremely well.

In fact, you can break down Trudeau’s image-building communication strategy into a simple three point formula:

1. Send Trudeau to a visually interesting location, i.e. a gymnasium, a physics lab, the White House, etc.

2. Have Trudeau inundate journalists with a slew of captivating photo ops, e.g. Trudeau sparring in a boxing match, Trudeau peering into a microscope, Trudeau hugging pandas, or Trudeau posing with Hollywood celebrities.

3. Bask in the glow of resulting positive media coverage.

Using this formula the Liberals have managed to craft Trudeau’s image so that he comes across as a leader who’s dripping with coolness and awesomeness and oodles of sensitivity.

One day he looks like a sexy pugilist, the next day like a physics genius, the next, like a movie star.

It’s no wonder GQ magazine recently named Trudeau, “the most stylish politician alive.”

Of course, in reality all this imagery stuff is nonsensical.

I mean, just because Trudeau is cleverly marketed as stylish and hip and dreamy, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s also a good leader, right?

But as a rule, citizens are willing to suspend reality and accept public relations-induced illusions about their leaders

After all, it gives us a sense of pride and maybe even a feeling of security to think the people leading our country are brilliant or strong or somehow blessed by the gods.

Indeed, it’s for the sake of image that throughout history monarchs have always surrounded themselves with pomp and circumstance.

As George Bernard Shaw once put it, “Kings are not born, but made by universal hallucination.”

At any rate, this is the emotional need which Trudeau and his team are tapping into.

Mind you, such a communications strategy also contains risks.

It’s possible, for instance, the Liberal image-making machine could over flood the media market with Trudeau photo ops and hence reach an “imagery saturation point”.

“Ho hum, another picture of the prime minister in the newspaper striking a yoga pose. Boy, that’s getting old.”

This is why, to keep things fresh, the Liberals may eventually have to get more creative with their photo ops, i.e. Trudeau might have to box a panda bear, in a physics lab, using a yoga-style fighting technique.

But even then, Canadians might start to wonder, “Hey I see so many pictures of Trudeau acting like a hip celebrity maybe it means he doesn’t care about regular slobs like me.”

To offset such a backlash the Liberals may have to tone down the glitz and focus on getting Trudeau endorsed by Fields and Streams magazine instead of GQ.

Imagery campaigns for politicians must always be carefully monitored and calibrated.

And that’s a good lesson for would-be communicators.

The political images themselves might be simple, but the strategy behind them can be tricky.

(This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

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The Politics of Envy

If you’re anything like me you constantly daydream about being wealthy enough to own cool stuff like a palatial country estate and a private jet and a chocolate fountain.

It’d be sweet, right?

Well, it would be sweet, unless you’re running for elected office, then that all “rich person” stuff might not be so great.

In fact, such glittering assets could actually be a potential liability.

Why?

Because one person’s success can often times cause other people to experience an unpleasant emotion known as “envy.”

Envy, according to the dictionary definition, is a “feeling of discontented resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions or luck.”

And envy is more than just a passive resentment.

An envious person will also actively wish and hope for bad things to happen to the person being envied.

As a Spanish proverb put it, “Envy is thin because it bites but never eats.”

And the mere fact that we have proverbs about envy indicates that it’s always been part of the human condition.

In his influential book, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, sociologist Helmut Schoeck noted that in primitive cultures it was widely assumed that inordinate success went hand in hand with black magic.

In other words, if a farmer enjoyed a harvest far richer than his neighbors, he would be suspected of employing witchcraft.

Hence, successful people in those days were scorned or cursed or ostracized.

Accordingly, successful hunters or farmers in primitive societies would often hide their good fortune so as not to arouse bad feelings against them.

Of course, today, as the “Panama Papers” incident makes clear, it’s a lot harder to hide good fortune.

Nor are modern people any less likely to feel envious.

Indeed Schoeck calls envy the “central problem of man’s social existence.”

And certainly envy is also central to politics.

For instance, what some politicians call “social justice”, i.e. “taxing the rich”, or “redistributing income,” is at its root an idea that essentially taps into our basic feelings of envy.

After all, who doesn’t want to “stick it” to those snobby rich people?

And, of course, a wealthy person running for office is extremely vulnerable to envy-based bad feelings, feelings which can be whipped up by their opponents.

Successful American businessman Mitt Romney and acclaimed Canadian academic Michael Ignatieff, are two prominent one-time politicians, for example, whose careers were undermined by feelings of envious resentment.

One was considered too rich; the other, too educated.

Luckily, however, it’s possible for politicians to escape this envy trap.

Consider Donald Trump, a billionaire who’s running for the office of US President.

As a wealthy man, he should be a prime target of envious feelings.

Yet Trump’s success to date has stemmed from his remarkable ability to deflect feelings of envy away from him and to direct them toward others, i.e. Republican Party and media elites.

In short, people support Trump because they see him as a guy who will take those powerful establishment types down a peg or two.

Another politician who has so far avoided the pitfalls of envy is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a man who, let’s not forget, was born to affluence and privilege.

He has dealt with the envy problem not by deflection, but by distraction.

What I mean is Trudeau acts and talks and behaves, not like a millionaire or like a snooty socialite, but like a Hollywood celebrity.

And in our society, we don’t envy celebrities; we worship them.

Anyway, my point is if you’re blessed with riches and if you want to get into politics, it pays to beware the bite of envy.

This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times. 

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Free Political Speech at Risk

You’d think a person who held the federal cabinet position of “Democratic Institutions Minister”, would actually care about protecting democratic rights and freedoms.

I mean, protecting democracy should be a part of the job description, right?

But alas, the Liberal government’s Democratic Institutions Minister, Maryam Monsef, doesn’t seem to be all that interested in protecting freedoms.

In fact, Monsef has strongly hinted that she’s prepared to mutilate, restrict and otherwise mangle the most important of all democratic rights – the right to free political speech.

Mind you, she doesn’t come out and say that directly.

Instead Monsef recently released a statement in which she expressed dismay at how more than 100 different organizations (mainly unions) spent a grand total of $6 million on political advertising during last year’s federal election.

What apparently horrified Monsef was that these groups were (horrors of horrors) using money to buy ads so they could influence the way Canadians voted.

So vowing to reduce the impact of money on federal politics, she wrote “We will ensure that spending rules — both during and between elections — are in keeping with our democratic commitment to make voters, not dollars, determine the outcome of elections.”

Translation: the Liberals will soon pass legislation to further restrict free speech.

I say “further restrict” because Canada already has in place a draconian “gag law” which basically makes it impossible for independent organizations or citizens (politicians like to call them “Third Parties,”) from effectively using paid ads to express political opinions during elections.

Consider, for instance, the 2015 election which saw “Third Parties” spend almost five times more than they did in the 2011 election.

This increase in spending is actually what panicked Monsef.

And sure five times more spending sounds like a lot, until you realize that the “big third party spender” in the last election, the independent group which spent the most money on political ads, was the United Steelworkers union and it spent a mere $431,640.

As anyone who has ever run a national media campaign can tell you, that kind of money will buy you only the scantest of media exposure, not even a ripple on the ocean of public consciousness.

Of course, that’s the whole idea behind election gag laws.

Politicians put them in place not because they want to stop dollars from buying votes, but because they want a monopoly on debate during elections.

To be blunt, they want all independent organizations to stand on the sidelines and shut up.

And now, the Liberal government is musing about imposing a tighter gag.

Does this mean it will soon be illegal for groups to spend even a nickel on advertising?

Even worse, however, is it also seems the Liberals are considering expanding the gag law so that it’s in place between elections.

Think about that.

Do we really want to live in a society where it’s a crime for environmental groups or labor unions or taxpayer advocacy organizations to express political opinions through ads, even if there’s no election to influence?

To me that sounds like government censorship.

And all this illustrates the problem that always emerges when governments start to infringe on democratic freedoms, namely you start sliding down a slippery slope that leads to scary places.

And yes, everyone should be scared by the Liberal government’s musings about limiting free speech.

Advocates on the left should be frightened, advocates on the right should be frightened, anyone who cares about democratic freedoms should be frightened.

After all, if you undermine free expression, you also undermine democracy.

It’s sad how a Democratic Institutions Minister doesn’t seem to get that.

(This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

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The NDP: A Tale of Two Parties

This week an army of demoralized New Democrats will solemnly trudge into Edmonton for a convention they hope will take the form of a massive pep talk.

After all, if any party needs pepping it’s the NDP.

Ever since the party’s disastrous defeat five months ago in the 2015 federal election, the NDP, consumed with self-doubt, riddled with angst, and sidetracked by the need to single out scapegoats, has descended into a deep funk.

Yet at the end of the day no amount of cheery words or upbeat messaging can change the NDP’s depressing reality.

And it’s a reality the NDP will ultimately have to face.

That means New Democrats must come to grips with the fact that their party as it exists today is almost a completely different party from the one which existed on the eve of the 2015 federal election.

Certainly, the party’s psychology is now vastly different.

Prior to the 2015 election, the NDP was brash, almost to the point of swaggering.

Riding a seemingly irresistible wave of momentum, New Democrats allowed themselves to imagine they were on the verge of an historic victory that would see the election of Canada’s first officially socialist government.

Nor were such high hopes unwarranted.

Its unprecedented position as the Official Opposition in Parliament, its seemingly unassailable bastion in Quebec and its consistently strong showing in opinion polls, all provided a strong foundation for NDP optimism.

Today, of course, that optimism, like Scarlett O’Hara’s Confederacy, is all but gone with the wind.

And what’s driven away that confidence is the NDP’s current strategic situation which is   much different now than it was in 2015.

After ingloriously crashing in the election, the NDP, now relegated to third place in Parliament, its Quebec stronghold in ruins and trailing badly in the polls, is a mere shadow of its former self.

In a flash, it’s gone from contender to pretender.

What’s worse, the NDP – once the undisputed champion of Canada’s progressive movement – now finds itself basically on the right of the Liberal Party, which, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has swung dramatically to the left.

All this, of course, leads to the big question of the day: if so much for the NDP has changed, why should its leader remain the same?

Is Thomas Mulcair the leader who can reboot the NDP?

It’s a question that needs asking since rebuilding the party wasn’t in Mulcair’s original job description.

Back when he took over the party in 2012, when the NDP was seemingly on the ascendency and needed to convince voters it was ready to govern, New Democrats needed a leader who seemed prime ministerial, who seemed to offer “safe change”, who could offer the hope of building on the NDP’s Quebec base.

Mulcair, with his centrist, non-threatening ideology, his calm professorial demeanor, his strong roots in Quebec politics, more than fulfilled those requirements.

But now the NDP is a different party with different needs.

In 2015 the NDP was fighting for power; in 2016 it’s fighting for relevance.

So perhaps the NDP of 2016 and beyond needs a different sort of leader, with different attributes and qualities than the ones Mulcair provides.

Maybe it needs a leader who is a charismatic socialist firebrand, maybe it needs a leader who possesses left-wing populist appeal, or maybe it needs a leader from outside central Canada.

In a sense the NDP is like a Tale of Two Parties.

The man who seemed suited to lead the NDP in its best of times, might not be the man suited to lead it in its worst of times.

This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.

 

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