Rob Ford, R.I.P.

There’s a talent called “the common touch:” the ability to connect, on an emotional level with a significant population. This is something that Rob Ford’s detractors, now that he’s passed on, are finally admitting that he had.

All politicians in modern democracies try to lay claim to this, in the belief that it enhances their electability; few people can actually demonstrate it. It doesn’t depend on the politician’s background; Ford came from a rich family, but his personal work ethic in office was geared towards constituent service; Rick Salutin has a convincing explanation as to why. It’s more likely to occur at the local level than at the regional or national; London’s old mayor Boris Johnson is probably the politician who comes closest to Ford when it comes to this talent.

The “common touch” is valuable in getting elected, but it has one great benefit: it keeps the politician politically viable in the face of voracious opposition or crippling scandal. Think of Washington, DC’s Marion Barry, who had substance-abuse scandals even worse than Ford’s; he did jail time, but still managed to get elected to a fourth term as mayor.

What’s interesting about Ford’s version of the “common touch” is that he was willing to work to maintain it:

Unlike colleagues who dealt only with constituent issues staffers brought to their attention, he spent his days personally returning phone calls about cracked sidewalks and uncollected garbage. . . .

“He would tell anyone who asked [about] how to get elected,” says [former Ford chief of staff Mark] Towhey, “and the advice was simple: return people’s phone calls, and go to their doors. But very few politicians like doing that. They want to be the general, not the private in the trenches.”

Naturally, my home being Ottawa, I can’t go thirty seconds in a social conversation without politics creeping in. Whenever the subject of Rob Ford came up, some people disapproved of this “personal touch” aspect of his mayoralty. “That’s someone else’s job,” they said, “leave that stuff to them. The mayor should be about the big picture.”

I’m not sure about that. I think Ford’s philosophy of “go to the doors” is a perfectly valid one, because it never lets the politician forget that “the taxpayer” isn’t a source of revenue, but a master to be served, who grades performance every election day. Whereas “big picture” thinking usually results in megaprojects with big costs, major inconveniences and returns below expectations, for a vision that changes with each new bum in the mayor’s chair.

One other thing about Ford’s work ethic. If American Republican Party politicians had adapted it, and kept it, during the Reagan and subsequent administrations, they wouldn’t be having a Donald Trump problem now.

Posted in Politics, R.I.P.

Hillary and the Attack of the IT-Men

Now, I know it’s the fashion to blog about Donald Trump these days, but I figure some more attention ought to be paid to the perceived Democratic frontrunner. Her current situation is, after all, much more relevant for the rest of us.

Yes, that’s right, more relevant. Mrs. Clinton isn’t exactly what you’d call a “unique” figure in contemporary politics. Mr. Trump is a millionaire businessman turned celebrity reality star conducting a serious political campaign; the closest I can think of is Rob Ford (who doesn’t qualify on “celebrity reality star” before getting elected mayor) or Jesse Ventura (who didn’t exactly qualify on “serious campaign”). Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, was a senior public service administrator when she was SecState, a political appointee, and there are lots of those around Washington.

What’s more, the peculiar circumstances of this particular scandal are such that anyone who’s ever worked on any government computer network can understand how the mess started.

For those of you who’ve never had an account with a government network, when you get assigned a government account, you also get a briefing before you’re allowed to use it. Most of it covers what you can and can’t use that account for, some of which is common sense (you shouldn’t be looking at porn sites while at work anyway, unless you’re in the business), and some of it can get pretty esoteric (why certain graphics on certain pages aren’t going to work). The briefings will be longer and more detailed if you’re required to work with classified documents, which means that when you sign the paper at the end of it, it’s assumed that you’ll remember everything that was said.

Mrs. Clinton seems to have treated those briefings the same way that most of us treat those agreements we get whenever we update Windows or iOS or an important application: we “sign” it so that we get the application to work, without necessarily actually reading it. This goes a great deal towards explaining one of her 2011 e-mails:

UNCLASSIFIED U.S. Department of State Case No. F-2014-20439 Doc No. C05787519 Date: 01/07/2016
RELEASE IN PART
B5,B6
From:
H <XXXXX@clintonemail.com>
Sent: Friday, June 17, 2011 8:21 AM
To: ‘sullivanjj@state.gov’
Subject:
Re
If they can’t, turn into nonpaper w no identifying heading and send nonsecure.

 

(Incidentally, if you want to find the original, you can do so in the U.S. State Department’s virtual reading room. Just input “sullivan,” “nonpaper” and “nonsecure” and it’ll be the first document that pops up. Oh, and I wouldn’t bother trying that e-mail address; I xed out the exact mailbox, and anyway presumably Mrs. Clinton’s changed it by now.)

Now, granted, most people, while seeing that exchange, will assume that Mrs. Clinton ordered her staffer to send classified information over a non-classified fax line. But not so fast:

So I think this is another instance where what is common practice, namely, look, I need information, I had some points I had to make and I was waiting for a secure fax that could give me the whole picture, but often times there’s a lot of information that isn’t at all classified so whatever information can be appropriately transmitted unclassified often was – that’s true for every agency in the government and anyone who does business with the government.

 

Yes, that’s certainly true: a lot of classified documents do contain information that’s not classified, or in the public domain. Which is why Mrs. Clinton’s spokesperson called this particular revelation “overclassification run amok.”

Just one problem with this line of defence: Neither Mrs. Clinton nor her campaign staff get to declare what parts of a document are classified or should be declassified.

Declassifying information in a document is the job of, ultimately, whichever author or agency created the document in question. Part of the State Department scramble right now is over whether the information discussed can be declassified; if the answer is yes, then it will be, if only to save trouble all around in the long term.

But are we to believe that Mrs. Clinton is the only public official around whose practice of classified document discipline is so lax to be verging on the criminal? I would say, almost certainly not; you’ll remember that Maxime Bernier had to resign from a cabinet position due to a lapse of physical security. Security lapses likes these are always going to happen, so long as there are politicians around who don’t take IT security seriously, which means they’re going to happen long after Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump and Mr. Bernier are gone from the scene.

Posted in Yankees | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Justin’s Intellectual Disadvantage

Well, that was an interesting speech our Prime Minister gave in Davos, wasn’t it? From the Liberal PR team’s standpoint, it was a hit, complete with money quote:

Canada was mostly known for its resources. I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness.

Mind you, that’s the official text. Elsewhere, particularly according to Andrew Coyne, there’s a slightly different version:

“My predecessor,” he began, “wanted you to know Canada for its resources. I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness.”

Okay, look: there’s nothing particularly wrong, or partisan, about the Stephen Harper reference. Yes, Tory economic management relied primarily on the resources sector to drive most of the economy, and whatever you want to say about its merits or deficiencies, at least we can argue that resources are a Canadian economic advantage; it’s the “how do we manage it” that gets most of the argument.

However, the more worrisome bit is this: Justin seems to be toting the idea that Canadian brain power — i.e. ideas and knowledge — are an economic advantage.

And that problem is, that’s not so easy to justify.

There’s a word for those who generate ideas based on their own knowledge, and who make a living at it: intellectual. Most people have it to some degree or other, but only a select few get to make their living with it, usually college and university professors. The last person we had like that, in politics, was Michael Ignatieff. And look what happened to him.

Justin seems to have forgotten that intellectualism can only become an advantage if there’s an opportunity to apply it. And the opportunity isn’t as big as he seems to think it is, because there are tons of very smart people out there who aren’t from Canada. Our system of education doesn’t generate very many Mark Carneys, or David Suzukis, and they pretty much run smack dab into a ton of David Camerons and Rupert Murdochs and Donald Trumps.

I mention Trump because it brings up another point: usually it’s not the smart guy who has the advantage. There are several candidates in the Republican presidential nomination race who have higher IQs than the New York tycoon. But the tycoon has other talents that have consistently put him out ahead of the opinion polls, much to the frustration of the punditocracy who would be of the same “intellectual” philosophy that Justin seems so determined to tout.

Now, yes, you can drag out any number of Canadian individuals who have made their mark on history due to the products of their brain power. But that doesn’t make for the “economic advantage” that Justin is trying to promote. And though most of his Davos speech talks of Canadian “confidence,” there’s a thin line between confidence and outright arrogance, and one of Justin’s intellectual blinders is he never knows when he’s crossed it.

Posted in Justin Time | Tagged , | 8 Comments

How To Prepare for 2019

I figure two months is enough time for everyone to get used to the idea of Prime Minister Trudeau 2.0. (How do you know you’re used to it? When you’re not constantly thinking about how Stephen Harper would’ve done things differently.)

The punditocracy has been making noises about how long the Prime Minister’s “honeymoon” looks to be extended, but already we’re seeing signs that it’s wearing off. Specifically, the Globe and Mail’s liberal TV critic, John Doyle, getting into a hissy-fit with the Prime Minister’s secretary Gerald Butts over the wardrobe of a Liberal junior minister. No, it’s not quite the sponsorship scandal, but even the most Grit-minded folks of the Toronto press corps know their job will involve carving up the government, no matter how charming the government tries to be. (Down south, Barack Obama’s pretty much gone through the same thing.)

In the meantime, the Tories, high and low, have four years to turn themselves into a viable, electable alternative to the government. And unlike the Liberal opposition of the Harper years, we do have a few things going in our favor.

The big one is our baseline assumptions. The Dion and Ignatieff Liberals had to assume that they could resume their natural roles as the government pretty much at any time, thanks to minority situations and a natural reluctance to admit that there was anything wrong with their mindset. (And here, we should at least give the PM some credit: by firing the Liberal Senate from his caucus and recruiting younger candidates, he showed he was at least willing to address the ossification of Liberal thinking.)

Conservatives, by contrast, have never made the assumption that power would be theirs by default — at least, not the ones who want to prove politics to be an honorable calling. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to the attitude of entitlement that everyone these days is working to discourage.

Another advantage? Fundraising. Generally speaking, during the Harper years overall contributions may have dropped, but the fundamental mechanisms and infrastructure are still pretty sound. True, the other major parties have managed to catch up, finally getting used to the “no corporate donations” policy, but everyone’s got the message that the old ways aren’t going to come back, and woe betide any government that tries to change that. And for the Tories, individual fundraising experience and longevity is still an advantage.

If there’s one thing that needs to be improved (and it’s going to be a tough one, because it involves a change in contemporary mindset), it’s a very simple, yet very difficult thing: learning to defend.

The past four years of majority government may have given the Tories opportunity to wage a constant attack on the Liberals in general and Justin Trudeau in particular, but it’s also allowed them to forget the art of defense: how to justify and explain our policies in terms the voter can accept. It’s the sort of thing that has to be done constantly, and with conviction, otherwise people don’t pay attention and public attitude changes from “understandable” to “inexplicable.” Withdrawing the mandatory long-form census is one example. Citizenship rules are another.

Now that the Tories are in opposition, it’s time to relearn the three fundamental functions of the role:

  • questioning the need for a policy
  • showing why a policy won’t work unless changed
  • proposing alternatives to the policy

In recent years, of course, it’s been more fashionable to attack individual ministers and others for decisions perceived to be of personal benefit, but if politics needs to be taken seriously, the public needs to see a lot less of that sort of thing. Believe it or not, it is most certainly not a bad thing for Justin Trudeau to do a photoshoot with his wife; part of the job of a national leader is to improve the morale of his people, and if the people like the glamour associated with his charming the world, so what? It’d be a different thing if he were doing the shot during Question Period or in the middle of a disaster zone, but Justin has learned not to let his critics dictate his actions, which is a sure sign of weak leadership.

In 2016, there are plenty of opportunities to fuel the fire for Prime Minister Trudeau’s baptism. There’s a budget coming up, as well as the Speech from the Throne. Actions in Syria haven’t been fully addressed yet. A lower dollar means some hard decisions will need to be made on program spending, and the provinces are sensing their own opportunities. Plenty of time to end the honeymoon, but never make the mistake of thinking the Tories will automatically benefit. It took ten years for the Liberals to earn their way back to power. Let’s hope the Tories don’t take that much time.

Posted in Can Cons, Election 2015, Federal Government, Justin Time | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Tom Mulcair and Sports Franchises: A Brave and Wise Opinion

Let’s get one thing clear, right now: for the Canadian electorate, there is no such thing as only one choice. The voters will always demand that there be an alternative, and for right now, as of August (and admittedly this will probably change during the next couple of months) the NDP are it. And Tom Mulcair knows this.

The way he’s going to keep being the preferred alternative is to say things that, upon reflection, voters will agree make sense. As he’s done here:

“I think that nothing would be better than for the private sector to get together and put everything in place to have a Major League Baseball team (in Montreal),” he said. “But in a society that knows still to this day far too much poverty and when I have hundreds of thousands of children going to school hungry, it’s hard to understand that the taxpayer would be asked to fork over money for franchises that are worth billions.”

From the Left’s perspective, of course this makes sense: sports franchises are commercial, mostly private-sector-driven ventures, and if the private sector’s done its homework properly they shouldn’t need help from the government to land a major-league sports franchise for a city. But it’s also a logic that makes sense to the Right, for mostly the same reasons as well as a few more pragmatic ones: they’ve seen the lessons that other cities like Beijing and London have learned regarding major sports events, and no one’s willing to strain civic finances on a bet that a few thousand people will pay hundreds of dollars to see a millionaire try to swat an apple-sized pellet with a wooden stick.

But Mulcair’s also being brave here because he’s essentially saying “no” to a pernicious form of Quebec nostalgia, a harkening for return to the days when the Expos were a force to be reckoned with in Montreal and Guy Lafleur ruled the roost as the leader of the Quebec Nordiques. Quebec politicians have always tapped into this vein of nationalism for support, and Mulcair’s refusal to do the same is his recognition that his party has to do more — much more — than regional pandering.

Certainly he sounds more sure of his agenda than does Justin “My deficits will be better because they’re Liberal deficits” Trudeau. Which makes him, for right now, the more attractive political alternative.

(Note to Tory partisans: yes, Mulcair’s said stupid things, and he’ll say more stupid things before the campaign’s over. But if you want Stephen Harper to win a second majority, you’d be far better off defending his achievements and trumpeting his record than re-hashing old attacks on political rivals that voters have already tuned out.)

Posted in Election 2015, New DiPsticks, The Muleclear Reactor | Tagged , | 1 Comment

What’s A “Merit-Based” Senator?

Justin Trudeau’s latest campaign promise pretty much describes the typical Liberal campaign promise: it sounds good, but it’s also too vague to be taken seriously.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is promising to reform Senate appointments and introduce an “open, non-partisan, merit-based process.”

“As [Liberal Party] leader, I took decisive action removing Liberal senators from my caucus because partisanship and patronage need to be removed from the Senate,” Trudeau told supporters at the official opening of his campaign office in the Papineau riding of Montreal Tuesday.

Of course it should be said that Mr. Trudeau’s record on “open process” is — well, “superficial” is probably the kindest word. “Non-partisan” presumably means he won’t be appointing people with Liberal Party memberships, but that’s still torquable, based on the following question: if Bob Rae didn’t renew his Liberal membership and gets appointed to the Senate, is he considered “non-partisan”?

But it’s the phrase “merit-based” that really takes the cake. Because in order for it to be credible, Mr. Trudeau would have to explain exactly what merits a person has in order to be considered for the Senate. And that can create all sorts of mischief.

Of course there are some rules about who can be appointed. According to the Senate’s own web page, a prospective senator must:

  • be a Canadian citizen
  • be at least 30 years of age
  • own $4,000 of equity in land in the home province or territory
  • have a personal net worth of at least $4,000
  • live in the home province or territory

One of the reasons why Mike Duffy is in such trouble is that he claimed a summer residence, in Prince Edward Island, as his actual home, while investigators pointed out that he didn’t actually live there anywhere near long enough for anyone with a dictionary to agree with him.

Apart from that, the only Canadians really excluded from consideration are young people who rent their homes and don’t have cars, because they haven’t really accumulated enough net worth. So that doesn’t really help when we consider merit.

But how about this bit from the Senate page?

Increasingly, the Senate reflects our multicultural society. Senators come from many different ethnic backgrounds and religions. Canada’s First Nations and Black communities are represented in the Senate, as are Canadians of Arab, Asian, Italian, Jewish, Ukrainian and other origins.

So: is racial background, or religious belief, part of the definition of “merit” that Mr. Trudeau wants to use? If the behavior of Patrick Brazeau is anything to go by, probably not.

Of course, we do expect our senators to behave ethically while they hold their seats. But was there anything in Mike Duffy’s background and history as a journalist to show he would be profligate in his spending? Or Pamela Wallin’s? Mr. Trudeau might be tempted to say that anyone who works or has worked for CTV News would automatically be disqualified for Senate consideration, but would people consider that a fair condition?

Then we have to consider “merit” in terms of what we expect the Senate to actually do. If we say “pass good legislation” and “stop bad legislation” — well, that’s only going to bring up the issue of partisanship, but at a stage further down the process.

So it’s simple. If Mr. Trudeau wants to make Senate reform a campaign issue, he’s going to have to do more than say something that sounds good. He’s going to have to debate his competition in detail — and that will be a harder game than he or his handlers seem to be expecting.

Posted in Federal Government, Justin Time, Politics | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Fisking John Boyko’s Ten Election Rules

There’s a writer named John Boyko who’s published an essay in the Montreal Gazette (if for some reason you hit a paywall, it’s also available on his blog). One note: the fact that the graphic he uses for his blog entry comes from the Kelowna Lake Country Liberal Riding Association doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in his objectivity.

So shall we have a look at his proposed rules?

  1. Don’t call us voters or taxpayers. We are citizens. Okay, fine. A reminder that citizenship is a proud and noble thing; nothing wrong with that.
  2. Don’t tell us we’re choosing a prime minister. Well, technically, none of the parties actually are. Unless you’re actually in the leaders’ ridings, you’re not likely to see signs saying “Vote Harper” or “Vote May”. It’s why candidate signs have party logos. However, if all your information about the election is coming from party advertising, you might be forgiven for thinking that everything focuses on the leaders — but that’s more the fault of traditional legacy media behavior, and the way the politicians pander to it.
  3. Don’t deride coalitions. Well, here’s a problem. Mr. Boyko seems to want to re-fight the coalition crisis battle of 2008, and the real problem there is a matter of timing; ideally, the coalition should have happened the day after the election, not several months afterward. Popular sentiment, at the time, was against the coalition, all the more so when people had seen how the Opposition behaved during prorogation. I think it’s assured, should the NDP be in second place but the Tories fail to get a majority of seats, Mulcair will push for a stable coalition — and the third place party would be foolish not to give it to him, then, rather than wait a few months for an “unacceptable” Tory minority budget.
  4. Don’t offer false choices. I don’t think “false choices” is the problem so much as it’s “uninformed choices.” Suggesting that “oil should be left in the ground” completely ignores the reality of the local economy of the oil-producing region; likewise, building a pipeline through a province without taking into account that province’s concerns over leaks and spills as a born recipe for failure.
  5. Don’t employ terms without definitions. But, you see, that’s not the politicians’ fault for not providing them. It’s the media’s fault, both online and legacy, for ignoring the explanation in favour of the shorter, more memorable (but less accurate) headline or hashtag.
  6. Don’t try to scare us. Well — sad to say it, but that’s not really the media’s fault, but ours. The only cure for reacting to scaremongering headlines and hashtags is the elimination of ignorance among the electorate; it’s our job as responsible citizens to be aware of what our government is doing and what the political parties want to do about it.
  7. Don’t bribe us with our money. Actually, this shouldn’t really apply to just election time, but to all government and political behavior. This doesn’t apply just to the Tories’ UCCB cheques, but Justin’s promises to benefit the “middle class,” Premier Wynne’s new “pension plan,” et cetera.
  8. Don’t devalue social media. Oh, I hardly think “devaluing” is the real problem for politicians here. As we can now see. The better advice would be to learn to master social media — not just to be able to defend what’s been posted in the past, to just to not pretend that it didn’t happen, but to develop the mental discipline to prevent posting silly things in the first place.
  9. Don’t underestimate us. Personally, I’d rephrase this one to: don’t take us for granted.
  10. Don’t forget character. At first, this might seem contradictory with point 2, but really it’s a warning to all candidates, not just leaders.

So are these points useful? Well, it depends on who pays attention to them — and I’m not entirely convinced that any of the three parties will.

Posted in Blogging, Election 2015, Politics | Tagged | 2 Comments