All posts by Jaime Watt

Singh does not need a seat in Commons: Watt

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New NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh does not need a seat in the House of Commons.

There was a time when the Commons was both the symbolic and functional home of Canadian politics, but it matters less today than it ever has before.

These days, proposed legislation is introduced at photo-ops that are both televised and streamed and instantly made available on voters’ social media accounts.

In Ottawa and in the provinces, legislatures have become home to drive-by smears and gotcha politics; places where the behaviour of members, on each sitting day, diminishes respect for both the institutions and the members themselves.

Singh has been leader of the New Democratic Party since Oct. 1. Since then, he has not indicated any plans to run for a seat in Parliament before the next federal election, which won’t take place for another two years.

You may ask whether this is a good strategy for a new, relatively unknown leader who needs to introduce himself to Canadians, become relevant and make a substantive policy impact.

In fact, staying out of the House of Commons will help.

Former NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was lauded as an excellent orator and the most prosecutorial and effective opposition leader in Parliament in a generation.

In the end, this had very little effect on the 2015 election results because the political arena has effectively moved outside of traditional, official legislative settings.

The election of U.S. President Donald Trump is emblematic of this. Unlike former presidential hopefuls, Trump garnered support on Twitter, at town hall meetings that resembled rock concerts, and, of course, on the cable news circuit.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, too, has perfected the art of playing politics outside of the House of Commons.

Rather than showing up for Question Period, Trudeau answers questions on the shores of the Gaspé, greets factory workers in London or meets everyday Canadians at an event on Vancouver Island. The Prime Minister and his team know well that these opportunities appeal to his base and network of millennial voters.

In a competitive media landscape, the suppertime news matters less today than ever, and the 30-second news clip from Question Period buried in that newscast has little significance.

Selfie opportunities, viral moments and authentic human experiences are more captivating and better suited for a generation that is increasingly distracted and uninterested in the everyday workings of government.

Trudeau’s tears over Gord Downie’s death, his photobombing weddings, and his wearing silly socks to meetings with world leaders appeal to his voters and also attract the attention of others.

Singh knows this kind of thing works. That’s why he doesn’t want to be tied down by having a seat in the House of Commons.

Singh can travel the country on his time and by his own rules. This opens the door to more fundraising and important time with regional media outlets. And he’ll have time to focus energy on attracting star candidates to improve the NDP’s odds in 2019.

In that campaign, Singh will find himself fighting two very organized opponents. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives have a vast network of disciplined volunteers, fundraisers and strategists. The NDP ground game is far behind. To succeed, Singh will need to spend time diligently strengthening this capacity.

And he will need money. Lots and lots of money. Much of the money he raised during his leadership campaign came from the 905 area around Toronto. But a federal election campaign is very different from a leadership contest and to be successful, Singh will have to raise money from all corners of our country.

And there’s one more crucial thing to consider: there are risks to Singh running in any of the by-elections next month to fill four vacant House of Commons seats. Only one — in Scarborough-Agincourt — is in Ontario, Singh’s home province, and a riding where he spent his formative years. The seat was left vacant by the death of Liberal MP Arnold Chan, whose wife, Jean Yip, is now the Liberal candidate and favoured to win.

If Singh were to run in a byelection and lose, his party’s chances in 2019 would be materially compromised.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the risks of running are far greater than the rewards.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

( As published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, November 19, 2017)

Patrick Brown’s clever strategy is withstanding Liberal attacks: Watt

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The Ontario Liberals have now served in government for more than 14 years. It’s an incredible accomplishment: few governments in Canada have secured so many consecutive mandates, especially in today’s turbulent political environment.

That longevity has not been a fluke. The Ontario Liberal Party has been led by leaders who have connected with Ontarians and keen political operators who move quickly and decisively to play up political advantages and minimize political threats. It’s among the most formidable Canadian political organizations in its era.

The Ontario Liberals have demonstrated an impressive ability to identify and exploit the weaknesses of their political foes. Their reward has been four consecutive governments.

It’s for that reason that this fall has been particularly interesting to watch.

When Patrick Brown was elected the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in 2015, many pundits thought the party had made a grave error. Indeed, many dismissed it as an accident that would have serious consequences for the party.

Brown had been a backbench Conservative Member of Parliament in Stephen Harper’s government, and had been part of a number of votes that could allow the politically savvy Liberals to define him as an unpalatable social conservative.

However, Brown has been far more politically deft in the last two years than the political class in Ontario would have guessed he’d be. He has wisely recognized that 14 years of governance eventually causes a government’s shine to wear off, no matter the party or its successes.

It is natural that in the course of governing the inevitable barnacles will attach to the ship of the government, and a party will take some scrapes and hits that begin to cause serious brand damage. Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals are struggling with that challenge.

Brown has capitalized on that by stepping away from the spotlight.

He has systematically shed positions that would alienate mainstream Ontario voters from the PC party. He hasn’t let the party’s more right-wing tendencies get the best of it.

The Liberals have a tried-and-tested formula for winning elections, including the aforementioned ability to identify and hammer away at opponents’ weaknesses. The Liberals also have a superbly organized ground game.

The Working Families Ontario coalition is a centre-left organization developed by a number of interest groups that work to develop election strategies to keep the PCs out of government. Often, the Liberals and Working Families air ads with similar messages and themes that frame their opponents as bad for Ontario.

Thus far, this has been a one-two punch that knocks out opponents. But the last two months have shown that the Liberals have struggled to find an attack on Brown that sticks.

They have tried to compare Brown to U.S. President Donald Trump, pushing the message that the PC leader will bring a new and divisive brand of politics to centrist Ontario. A Working Families coalition ad implies the same, imploring Ontarians not to bring Trump’s politics to Ontario.

Trump is an effective political cudgel. He is about as popular in Ontario as a cockroach infestation in your home.

But Brown’s effective message of political moderation has made those attacks ring a bit hollow. It’s hard to imagine the calm and measured Brown indulging in the divisive politics of Trump.

The Liberals have tried to trip up Brown on such issues as Canadian values, abortion and gay rights, to no avail. He has refused to take the bait.

It is perhaps with this in mind that the Working Families coalition has released another ad, accusing Brown of behaving like a weather vane — an opportunist who changes his views depending on the political winds.

This means the coalition is saying that Brown is an operator who wants to bring divisive Trump-like politics to Ontario at the same time it’s arguing that he takes his political positions based on political wind direction.

Not only is it not a coherent message — it’s downright contradictory.

Brown has learned the lessons of his predecessors, and he has refused to give the Liberals an opportunity to wedge him into uncomfortable positions.

By doing so, he is focusing political scrutiny on a Liberal government that is increasingly under duress. Only eight months before an election campaign, a number of government veterans have announced they are retiring, the media has grown more critical, and the Liberals’ messages to voters don’t seem to be getting through.

Meanwhile, Brown is showing Ontarians that his leadership victory may well not be a mistake after all.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(As published in The Toronto Star on November 12, 2017)

Russia inquiry may not be enough to bring down Trump: Watt

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Yet another shoe has dropped in the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the last U.S. presidential election.

Close associates of President Donald Trump have been indicted, including his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

Many view the Russia inquiry, overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller, as the silver bullet to the Trump presidency. These opponents believe that a finding of collusion will end the regime and bring Trump down.

They reason that, much like the Watergate scandal, the lies and resulting coverup will reveal a deeply compromised president whose tenure will be irreparably damaged.

But critics who think that way continue to be naïve to our new political world.

Even if Mueller finds hard evidence of collusion, it may not be enough to bring down a president who remains buoyed by his supporters. Perhaps even more problematically for these opponents, a successful impeachment may represent a long-term setback for their own side.

There are a multitude of reasons for this, but among the most prominent is President Trump’s remarkable ability to obfuscate and confuse stories. Aided by a network of conservative media outlets, the president has managed to refocus and deflect allegations by constantly relaying messages on irrelevant or tangentially related issues.

For instance, on the same day that the media — CNN the lead among them — were breathlessly reporting the indictment of Manafort for suspicious activity with the Russian government, Trump began tweeting about Hillary Clinton’s relationship with a mining company acquired by a Russian corporation.

The issue had nothing to do with the Mueller investigation. Nonetheless, it successfully gained traction on a number of platforms, including much of television news. The problem is that most consumers of news do so casually at best.

If you had watched the news or skimmed the headlines that day, it would be difficult to not conflate Clinton, Russia, collusion and Trump.

None of this is a coincidence. The Mueller investigation is extremely complicated and the president’s messages only make the issue more difficult to follow.

Trump seems to have a mastery of this communication strategy. He and his White House allies, aided by the 24/7 media cycle, have managed to noticeably turn the dial and intentionally confuse the issue on Russia’s election involvement.

To the well-read and focused reader, it seems rather obvious that the Trump campaign — or at least some of those embedded within it — worked with agents of the Russian government to release information that would hurt Clinton in the election.

And yet, the general population has far less understanding of this issue. And that will be critical for Mr. Trump’s survival when the inevitable fallout from Mr. Mueller’s investigation occurs.

Trump has a dedicated following that has demonstrated considerable resistance to abandoning the president, and it seems unlikely that the complicated Russia issue will dissuade them any further.

If, in the end, the issue is not a cut-and-tried accusation that has direct ties to the president, it is unlikely that those who have not yet abandoned him will all of a sudden head for the doors. The issue has now been around long enough and has become confused enough that the media apparatus that supports Trump will prove, once again, to be his biggest asset.

As we have seen all year, Trump’s appeal to a loyal base places considerable pressure on Republican members of Congress to remain loyal to the president.

Further to the practical challenges of the Mueller inquiry, it remains a question if it is even advisable to try to tackle the president in this way. Trump was elected to drain the Washington swamp and attack the entrenched Washington interests that voters revile so much.

Should the president be removed from office by the Congress, aided by investigations undertaken by federal agencies, it is almost certain that it would be seen as a coup by his supporters. Trump would claim, and would likely be supported by the conservative media network, that his ouster was the inside-the-Beltway crew yet again protecting itself.

Such an outcome could be disastrous for those who revile Trump’s presidency. Their attempt to eject him from office could well backfire and, instead, inspire a backlash in the next election.

Those opponents of Trump who are watching the investigation unfold with glee need to beware. It is a road filled with traps, detours and blind spots. And while many want to storm down that road with little caution, heed must be paid to the many unforeseen consequences that lie ahead.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(As published in the The Toronto Star on Saturday, November 4, 2017)

Canada’s Patchwork of Pot: Watt

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As the Trudeau government’s July 2018 deadline for the legalization of marijuana looms, Canadians are beginning to focus on the social and economic implications of the change. As political strategist and policy advisor Jaime Watt writes, both the federal government and its provincial counterparts have work to do to allay some serious concerns before next Canada Day.

Bill C-45, Canada’s cannabis legislation, was tabled in the House of Commons last April, signalling Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to proceeding with legalization. While the bill establishes a strict framework for production, sale and possession, major issues such as distribution, enforcement and road safety have been left for provincial and territorial lawmakers.

Provincial governments have expressed concerns about the July 2018 deadline that was assigned to them, but would be wrong to delay meaningful consultation, planning and preparation. Canada’s patchwork of competing regional, demographic, and cultural factors will greatly impact the entrance of legal recreational cannabis into the market.

The industry’s success or failure will be based on the ability of local decision-makers to work with producers and users to present a safe, legitimate, and fairly-regulated product.

Polling indicates that Canadian provinces will face challenges in this respect. According to Cannabis in Canada, Navigator’s monthly online public opinion tracking survey of 1,200 participants, Canadians hold significant reservations about the disruptive effect retail storefronts could bring to their communities.

Seventy-three per cent of Canadians believe that legalization will unclog the court system with needless cases and prosecutions for possession of marijuana for recreational use. An equal number believe legalization will provide marijuana users access to quality-controlled products that meet government requirements for strict production, distribution, and sale.

Despite this widespread understanding, concerns remain as July 2018 nears.

Our polling indicates that 44 per cent of Canadians currently support legalization, 37 per cent oppose. This lack of consensus suggests that both governments and producers have work to do. As a result, the response of provincial governments will show their best attempts at responding to these concerns.

Cannabis in Canada polling tells us a great deal about these motivating factors.

For example, government retail store fronts are the most popular model with support from 56 per cent of Canadian respondents.
In Ontario, the Wynne government, which faces re-election in June 2018, will be reluctant to delve into any controversial initiatives that distract from key campaign pillars.

Government retail outlets appear to be the route of least resistance. Their plan to distribute through a government-owned system and an online-based order service comes as no surprise. This model, they believe, allows the government to directly manage the output of legal recreational marijuana into the marketplace in a way that is reflective of current public opinion, which is a major motivator with less than eight months until Ontarians pass judgment on their current mandate.

The risk: if the government’s network of storefronts proves not to be consumer-friendly, black market producers and the current dispensaries operating in major cities will continue to thrive.

New Brunswick has taken a different approach. Premier Brian Gallant faces re-election, and therefore has been very vocal about his belief that the cannabis industry can drive economic growth. His government has created a Crown corporation to oversee sales, paired with two private cannabis businesses, and is procuring bids for retail solutions.

By working with established producers and market contributors, Gallant’s government feels it can balance social responsibility and provide a consumer-friendly product at a fair price.

A third approach, which is expected to be taken by British Columbia’s recently elected NDP government, will be forced to deal with the unique challenge of developing a legal framework in an environment where recreational marijuana is already widely distributed.
Remember, the City of Vancouver has provided business licenses to several existing dispensaries. Interestingly, only 46 per cent of British Columbia residents support legalization.

Understanding the potential impact of illegal dispensaries currently operating in communities will influence residents. This, of course, will be balanced with input from the active dispensaries, their customers, and ancillary businesses that advocate for a path to legalization. Premier John Horgan has expressed an understanding of this balance and has indicated that existing dispensaries will play a role in the province’s cannabis framework.

Regardless of the province, proper training for retail employees has emerged as a consistent priority for Canadians. Seventy-four per cent support the introduction of training and certification programs for marijuana retailers and 88 per cent believe such programs, if implemented, should be mandatory.

Political sensitivities, stakeholder management and catering to local environments will factor in all three government’s decisions about how to implement training programs.

Another voter concern that Canadian provinces will have to confront pertains to the location of storefronts. While only 37 per cent of Canadians actively oppose the legalization of marijuana, 50 per cent of all Canadians oppose a privately-owned recreational cannabis dispensary opening in their neighbourhood. Talk about NIMBYism.

All provincial governments will want to avoid any confrontation regarding concerns about proximity to schools and other community spaces. Provinces like British Columbia will be expected to develop rules to address these concerns.

While these evolving concerns will influence government activity in the coming months, ultimately, licensed producers hold responsibility for their own successes and failures.

After years of campaigning for legalization, licensed producers will be actively scrutinized by investors, regulators and concerned members of the public. If industry leaders are unable to adapt to a new regulatory framework and scale up to meet demand, Canadian concerns about the impacts of legalization are likely to worsen or remain unchanged.

As governments do the heavy lifting, licensed producers and other market participants should be working together to establish shared priorities and communicate collective commitment to responsible business practices that address health and safety concerns, while unlocking economic opportunities for communities.

If Canadians do not have the confidence in quality-controlled, regulated products, both governments and industry will share the blame.
The path towards successful legalization requires a collaborative and thoughtful approach that builds confidence among Canadians.

Partisan politics will inevitably impact decisions on this subject. However, by understanding these pressure points producers will successfully set themselves on a path to respond to local concerns and to meaningfully participate in a safe, legitimate, and fairly-regulated environment.

Contributing writer Jaime Watt is Executive Chairman of Navigator Ltd., a national public affairs and government relations consulting company.

(As published in November’s Policy Magazine and on policymagazine.ca)

Quebec vote shows Trudeau’s still on top: Watt

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The summer and fall have certainly not been breezy for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He has faced ministerial mishaps, legislative breakdowns and accusations of increasingly centralized PMO.

An article last week declared that Justin Trudeau was Stephen Harper 2.0. That is, without a doubt, in the mind of the media, the worst insult they could throw at the Prime Minister. After all, Trudeau was elected mostly because he wasn’t Harper.

Indeed, based on the apparent furor that has been going on in recent weeks, one would expect a government that was facing significant political headwinds with the voters. But recently, signs have emerged that suggest the outcry may be more of a tempest in a teapot.

The recent byelection in the Quebec riding of Lac-Saint-Jean was a surprise victory for the Liberals, who garnered 39 per cent of the vote. The Conservatives — who were the incumbents — had a dismal showing, with just 25 per cent of the vote. The NDP ended up with only 12 per cent of the vote.

We know that by-elections often favour opposition parties. So much for the theory that nails were being pounded into the Liberal coffin.

Even though the Conservatives and the New Democrats now have leaders in place, those parties failed to gain momentum in the Quebec byelection, and support for the Liberals in Quebec has only grown since their surprisingly large margin of victory in La Belle Province in 2015.

The problem is that Quebec now holds 78 seats — a significant portion of the House of Commons. It can be a stumbling block for many political leaders. Indeed, the government of Pierre Trudeau should serve as a warning for the opposition parties. With only marginal popularity in much of English Canada, his government was kept afloat in successive elections by resounding support in Quebec paired with mixed-to-middling results in the rest of Canada.

The map does not look all that different today.

Simply put, to have any chance of success in 2019, the Conservatives and New Democrats will have to break what could be a Liberal stranglehold on Quebec.

What is going on here?

First, the opposition is making a lot of noise, but has been largely focused on issues that aren’t as important to Canadians. The criticisms they have been lodging regarding Trudeau’s tax changes and deficits simply aren’t moving the dial.

The government’s fiscal update centred around a projected deficit cut from $28.5 billion to $19.9 billion. In response, the Conservatives focused on talk about the evils of running a deficit.

This was just what the Liberals wanted to happen.

If the 2015 election campaign taught us one thing it was that, right now, opposition to deficits simply doesn’t move votes.

The Conservatives should have ignored the deficit chat, and asked Canadians if they personally felt economically stronger today than they did two years ago. Instead of wading into a numbers game, they should have positioned themselves as tax-cutting, money-saving champions.

Second, the Ottawa echo chamber — where journalists and opinion leaders talk among themselves about the issues they deem worthy of attention — is getting louder and louder.

To be fair, it’s a democratic echo chamber. Anyone with a Twitter account can engage a journalist, celebrity, or member of Parliament.

But the problem is that most Canadians simply aren’t interested in the minutiae that consumes political Twitter. Canadians don’t care about the proceedings of a committee or the amendment process on legislation.

In order to affect voters, an issue must be easily explainable and have resonance in the lives of Canadians.

Evidence suggests that the accelerated news cycle, our hyper-shortened attention spans and the relentless focus on micro-issues, turns Canadians off.

Canadians especially don’t seem to care about a more centralized PMO or a poorly disclosed villa in France.

There are serious implications here. Scheer and Singh both have challenging but possible paths to 24 Sussex Dr. in the next election.

But to get there, they must find those issues, those pocketbook issues, that matter to hard working, everyday Canadians. The kind of issues that make a difference, a direct difference, in everyday life.

What’s more, they will need to find issues that have particular resonance in Quebec.

On top of that, they need a little luck to find issues, which not only wedge the Liberals, but also wedge the other guy.

If either one succeeds, the next election will be one to watch. If they don’t, their view from the opposition benches in the House of Commons won’t change.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(As published in the Toronto Star on October 29, 2017)

How charismatic Singh is a threat to Trudeau: Watt

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No doubt that the federal Liberals followed the results of the New Democratic Party’s leadership contest with great trepidation.

Jagmeet Singh’s election is a monumental breakthrough for Canada’s community of visible minorities. But Singh represents a formidable new presence on Canada’s political stage for even more reasons.

Singh has that certain “je ne sais quoi” that political operatives search for. He’s emotive and evocative. He’s a comfortable and accomplished communicator, one of the few politicians who can explain ideas in ways that generate interest and support.

Plus, he’s just a downright interesting person, one who sometimes rode his bike to work at Queen’s Park and who practices martial arts during his off hours.

Perhaps even more importantly, Singh has a natural political intuition that has allowed him to navigate several daunting political hurdles in his young career.

Sound familiar?

Singh has many of the same attributes that vaulted Justin Trudeau from leader of the third party into the country’s most important political position in just one election.

It’s easy to underestimate the threat. Trudeau’s qualities were also initially derided. Being emotive was mocked as being weak. Evocative was portrayed as shallow. Opponents were condescending in criticizing Trudeau’s comfort with communicating with Canadians.

The critics were wrong — at least about what Canadians were looking for in October 2015.

The same criticisms that were levelled at Trudeau have been levelled at Singh. While it hasn’t begun at a high volume, the groundwork is being laid. Media reports have already contained rumblings about Singh’s lack of experience, lack of familiarity with federal files, and lack of interest in learning more.

Meanwhile, less noticed in the two years since the Liberals formed the government has been the stability of the Conservative Party. Its fundraising has remained remarkably strong. Polling consistently shows the party with support of 30 to 33 per cent of Canadians, essentially the same level of support it garnered on election day in 2015.

This means that a third of Canadian voters have not budged from the Conservative Party even during its nadir, suggesting there is little room for the Liberals to grow on the right.

By contrast, support for the New Democrats has stagnated since their loss on election day. The party has since struggled to gain attention and to remain united.

The Liberals are keenly aware of the limits of growth on their right wing, and equally aware of the opportunities on the left. That opportunity has driven a decision to take a bold, activist stance on a variety of issues, including Indigenous rights and the environment.

Without a leader, and with Trudeau’s government encroaching on its territory, the NDP has been pushed to the margins of the debate.

Trudeau has a remarkable effect on the national press gallery. It’s hard to imagine reporters would have written stories about Stephen Harper’s socks or Paul Martin’s affinity for Star Wars.

The Prime Minister has an amazing ability to drive media coverage and control the narrative, and the NDP has suffered for it.

It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without political relevance, the party drifted downward in the polls. Without support in the polls, the party became less politically relevant. The Liberals gobbled up left-leaning supporters.

Enter Jagmeet Singh.

Singh has a similar effect on the media as Trudeau. His is an engaging speaker and can control the narrative. He is the game-changer the NDP needed.

The media coverage of Singh during the leadership contest dwarfed that of his competitors, and the coverage following his election was some of the most positive the NDP has received since Thomas Mulcair’s surge early in the last election campaign.

Singh’s ability to garner the kind of attention that has been paid mainly to the Liberal party constitutes a real threat to prospects for another Liberal majority government.

But New Democrats should also be wary.

Ottawa is not Queen’s Park, and many a politician has stumbled in their transition from politics in a provincial capital to the House of Commons.

That said, Singh has a legitimate shot at taking back for the New Democrats the supporters who drifted toward Trudeau.

Liberal political strategists trying to stake the party in the centre face a scary prospect: a party with dedicated supporters on the right and a resurgent party on the left.

The next two years may be more interesting than political observers had bet on.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(As published in The Toronto Star on October 22, 2017 and OurWindsor.ca on October 23, 2017)

Far too soon to waste time predicting the next PM: Watt

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There are still two years to go until the next federal election, but last week media outlets and polling firms began releasing polls and prognosticating about who the next prime minister of Canada will be.

Horse race journalism is once again the order of the day, even though the horse race is meaningless this far out from an election.

Needless to say, a lot can and will change in two years — especially in politics. “Political pundit” might as well be a euphemism for fortune teller.

That said, it seems that while horse race journalism may sell, it also may play a negative role in our politics for a number of reasons.

First, coverage that focuses on polls and the race among party leaders starves voters of the coverage and information they need to reach independent opinions about both policies and candidates.

Second, the horse race lens portrays candidates as self-interested who focus only on winning and losing and not on what actually matters, something that has the effect of encouraging cynicism among voters.

And finally, as argued by Northeastern University Professor Matthew Nisbet, horse race journalism leads to coverage that seems to present a false equivalency in the treatment of meaningful issues and allows more readily for the emergence of so-called “fake news.”

This kind of journalism is often terribly uninformed and frequently misses the mark.

While developments over the past few months have been important, there is still a lot we don’t know, making predictions all but impossible.

For example, we do now know who will be leading the major federal parties against Justin Trudeau. We have seen a generational shift in our political leaders, and this will undoubtedly change the tenor and tone of election 2019. As well, for the first time in Canadian history, a major federal party will be led by a visible minority.

However, among the unknowns are what risks are ahead for those in politics. They face many — some they can control and some that they can’t.

Politicians can plan and predict how policy debates will roll out, they can strategize on how to best implement economic and environmental policy. But what they can’t isolate are international flare-ups, natural disasters and unforeseen domestic crises. Voters are often swayed by how politicians react to unanticipated and often game-changing events, not by the mundane and predictable policy debates.

Politicians all face a fundamental problem — how to govern and plan for the next election, but retain the flexibility to react to an unforeseen event.

Prime Minister Trudeau and his Liberal team are well aware of what is needed in the lead-up to the 2019 election. They know that the prime minister is well-liked by a solid percentage of Canadians. They are also acutely aware that about 30 per cent of Canadians — the Conservative base — would never in a million years consider voting for him.

They know that the prime minister now faces a young, hip, new progressive on the left — NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. As a result, Trudeau will need to fight to retain a percentage of traditional NDP voters who sealed the deal on his majority mandate in 2015. To do this, Trudeau needs to pursue a firmly progressive agenda and make things right on Indigenous reconciliation and the environment. Easier said than done.

Many commentators have outlined this very game plan for the Liberals, especially since Singh and his Conservative counterpart Andrew Scheer’s secured their positions at the helm of their parties.

But it is naïve to believe that this is how 2019 will actually shake out.

Many things can and some will happen between now and then. The wild cards include:

  • A volatile U.S. president who could, without notice, fundamentally alter Canada’s economic future, trading environment, military requirements, immigration policies and international standing.
  • A North Korea, also with a volatile leader, that supposedly has the capability to strike Canada’s west coast.
  • The potential threat of the kind of domestic terrorism that has affected the domestic politics of other countries.
  • A complete collapse of the residential housing market.

And then there are the potential threats that are not even on the radar. All of this uncertainty makes trying to predict an election still two years away impossible.

So, next time you read a report or watch a panel speculating on who will win the 2019, consider the validity of what is presented and the possible negative impact such speculation may have on our politics.

And if you don’t agree, just ask Secretary Clinton.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(As published in The Toronto Star on October 15, 2017)

The changing faces of Canadian politics: Watt

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As the seasons have changed, so too has the Canadian political landscape.

The October 2015 election of a Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau began a major shift from dominance by Baby Boomers to a younger generation. Voters chose Trudeau’s youth and optimism over the experience of the other party leaders.

Just two years later, Trudeau is now the oldest of the three main federal party leaders. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and newly crowned NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are both 38, Trudeau is 45.

Scheer and Singh were chosen by their parties, at least in part, as a response to the youthfulness Trudeau brings to his leadership. The three are the youngest group of federal leaders in Canadian history.

It’s a remarkable shift, especially when contrasted with many Western democracies, whose increasingly older populations embrace greyer, more experienced leaders. (France, of course, is a notable exception.)

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May, 61, faces off in Parliament against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, 68.

In the United States, President Donald Trump, 71, still rails on about 69-year-old Hillary Clinton. Among Trump’s potential rivals in the next U.S. presidential election are California Governor Jerry Brown, 79, Senator Elizabeth Warren, 68, and Senator Bernie Sanders, 76.

But in Canada we are witnessing more than just a generational change.

Singh’s decisive victory last weekend raised the curtain on a new Canadian political pageant — one that is beginning to more accurately reflect the growing diversity of this country.

Growing up in Windsor in the 1980s, Singh saw a Canadian political establishment that consisted largely of white, older, straight men. It was an establishment that did not reflect him, his family or his friends.

In fact, throughout his leadership campaign, pundits and other commentators spoke or wrote in code about whether Singh’s Sikh identity could prove a challenge in a general election.

Just as Barack Obama’s victory was eight years ago, Singh’s convincing win was, at least in part, a rebuke of those whispers — whispers that likely will mean nothing to most Canadians when they cast their ballots in 2019.

Another shift came the day after Singh’s win when Julie Payette, 53, was sworn in as Governor General.

She, too, represents generational change, but she also represents more.

The institution of the vice-regal office is, of course, traditional by its very nature, and despite the dedicated efforts of predecessor David Johnston and his wife Sharon to humanize the post, and their success at genuinely connecting with Canadians all over the country, many see Rideau Hall as far removed from everyday life.

But Payette’s warm and enthusiastic demeanour is as inspiring as it is engaging. Her down-to-earth approach allows her to come across as accessible and approachable. Her ability to speak passionately and eloquently for nearly 20 minutes about our country and its future, without notes, makes her not only genuine and authentic but allows her to connect with her fellow citizens.

A former astronaut who has twice been to space and who speaks six languages, our new Governor General is an impressive person, with a long record of accomplishments. She has long been a role model.

And on Monday, in one poignant moment, Payette blazed a new trail, while at the same time reflecting the current reality of many Canadian families: she arrived at her installation ceremony as a single woman with her 14-year-old son by her side.

According to Statistics Canada, about 20 per cent of families in Canada are headed by a single parent. But until now, a single parent had never served as Governor General.

Payette also chose to affirm her loyalty, rather than swear an oath on the Bible. As religion’s role in the lives of Canadians is changing, here was another example that Canada’s leadership is more closely resembling the population.

There are other important role models whose lives and experiences mirror those of other Canadians. The premier of Ontario is a lesbian and the premier of Prince Edward Island is a gay man.

Canada is a diverse, inclusive and welcoming place. How lucky we are, and how lucky are our children, that our political leaders are beginning to look more like all of us.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(As published in The Toronto Star on October 8, 2017)

NAFTA talks fraught with perils for Trudeau: Watt

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A number of things happened last week that underscore the challenges ahead in Canada’s relationship with the United States.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama visited Toronto, just one day after failed candidate Hillary Clinton made an appearance here during her Canadian book tour.

It would be hard to blame Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for thinking wistfully about what might have been under President Hillary Clinton. Obama has long been an advocate of free trade; he moved to expand trading opportunities in the Pacific Rim. Similarly, Clinton has embraced free trade over the course of her career.

Even though she made half-hearted attempts to appeal to the protectionist constituency in American politics during her campaign, it is hard to imagine that, had Clinton won, a major Canadian company would be hit with a 219 per cent tariff and accused of cheating the system.

The announcement that the Bombardier C Series would be taxed at a level of 219 per cent landed like a bombshell, but we shouldn’t have been surprised — it has become a part of a broader pattern for the U.S.

A report produced by the Centre for Economic Policy Research’s Global Trade Alert found that U.S. policy had moved “sharply in favour of domestic firms,” with punitive tariffs up 26 per cent over the last year. Seen in this light, the Bombardier decision is not a mere one-off. It’s part of a broader attack on America’s trading commitments.

In fact, it appears with every passing day that U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy was more than just rhetoric, but a real threat to all of America’s trading partners.

It is even more difficult to imagine that Clinton as president would have threatened the fundamental trade deal that has underpinned the success of the North American economy for more than two decades.

But instead we have President Trump who has just overseen the third round of the renegotiation of NAFTA. By all indications, things are not going as swimmingly as hoped.

Talks officially kicked off on Aug. 16, and a, 2017 after much preparation on all three sides. As of last week, there has been agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico on only one relatively innocuous chapter, in a document filled with policy both meaningful and symbolic.

When the Liberals won the 2015 election, no one could have predicted that these negotiations would even be happening. But prime ministers must play the hands they are dealt, and it is now Trudeau’s responsibility to preserve Canada’s economic interests and its access to the American markets as best he can.

That, of course, is easier said than done. October 2019 is closer than it appears, and the government has officially entered the latter half of its mandate — a time when the pressure to consider domestic politics and optics grows.

Trade negotiations are lengthy, complex and often turn on minute policy details. Moreover, in order to get a deal, governments often have to concede points they would rather not concede.

It is no secret that right now Canada and the U.S. are oceans apart on a variety of policy issues, including labour regulation, the environment and tariffs. These are more than mere disagreements; they are fundamental differences that underpin each government’s domestic position.

These differences have the potential to cause major political headaches for Trudeau on the home front. Should the prime minister be perceived as not pushing hard enough on progressive causes, the NDP would happily step up to fill that void. If he pushes for inclusion of progressive policies, he risks losing the deal that underpins the Canadian economy.

Perhaps most notably, Unifor has formally called on the Canadian government to demand that the United States present legislation to rescind the right of states to implement “right-to-work” legislation. Right-to-work laws, which stipulate that union dues cannot be mandatory, are in effect in 28 U.S. states. Unions say this “right-to-work” is just another name for union-busting, while advocates of the laws argue they create a pro-business environment.

The emergence of this issue shows just how fraught with political peril the NAFTA negotiations are for Trudeau. Other issues on the prime minister’s left flank include Indigenous rights, environmental regulations, wages and government subsidies.

Trudeau’s position is not enviable. However, the danger of not signing a deal is far greater than the danger of signing one that angers more progressive Liberal supporters. Should a deal not proceed, or should the intemperate Trump decide the United States should simply pull out of NAFTA, the economic havoc that would ensue would be just one of the prime minister’s problems.

The political consequences would be far greater. No doubt, the prime minister, and his very astute advisers, are more than well aware of that.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(As published in The Toronto Star on October 1, 2017)

Tories fall into Trudeau’s tax trap: Watt

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As Parliamentarians made their return to the House of Commons this past week, there was a marked difference in the moods of Liberal and Conservative members.

Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives were cheerfully optimistic about their future, while Liberal government members were considerably less upbeat.

The reason: the federal government had just endured weeks of critical commentary from media outlets and interest groups from across the political spectrum and the country itself.

In mid-July, Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced the government intended to overhaul the system under which Canadian small businesses pay tax, cracking down on “loopholes,” including income splitting, and the taxation of passive income held within a business. The government’s said the changes would affect roughly 50,000 families across Canada — no small adjustment.

The resulting media attention was widespread and highly negative for the government.

The announcement sparked one critical headline after another, coverage that was helped by high-profile campaigns by professional associations like the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Bar Association, whose members benefit greatly from the current tax regime.

Stories sympathetic to independent business owners proliferated, describing the challenge the changes would pose to their existence in the gravest of terms.

The media circus even began to undermine caucus solidarity among the Liberals with several MPs making their criticisms public; never a positive sign as many a veteran politician will tell you.

So, it’s hard to blame the Conservatives for being so thrilled. After all, they have had precious little to cheer about since their October 2015 defeat. Their long leadership race to replace Stephen Harper coincided with glowing, almost “criticism-free” coverage of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Many partisans were left to wonder if they were now in the beginning stages of a long stint on the Opposition benches.

Then, the Conservatives spotted, what they thought, was a winning opportunity in this tax issue. They then used this fracas to focus MPs and hammer Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Question Period. They have even been inspired to launch an advertising campaign blasting the proposed changes.

And yet, none of this has budged Trudeau or altered his approach. And it seems that while unusual, the Prime Minister’s approach is an astute one.

It is well accepted that the last U.S. presidential election demonstrated there is a latent fury among citizens who feel their system is fundamentally rigged in favour of the privileged.

That belief that the game is rigged in favour of the rich is true here in Canada as well. And it is growing.

While it may seem as though there has been less turbulence here, that is because of some structural differences between our countries.

The American system was built to be highly susceptible to changes in mood. In Canada, political parties exert far more central control.

As well, in America, markets are large enough to sustain alternative media points of view for long enough to ferment a wider audience. American political culture is also strikingly more public-facing than it is here.

But that doesn’t mean the same turbulence doesn’t roil underneath Canada’s seemingly politically serene culture.

Canadians believe the system is rigged just as much as Americans do. They believe rich Canadians don’t pay their fair share of tax, and that the system delivers advantages to the privileged that are not available to them.

Canadians of all political stripes, of all demographic groups and from all over the country believe this. No amount of campaigning by doctors and lawyers will convince them the wealthy will be unduly hurt under a new tax regime; in fact, these campaigns may be more likely to push Canadians toward the Liberals.

The Conservatives have fallen into the trap of defending a group of privileged Canadians and allowing themselves to be boxed in against the middle class.

It seems that Justin Trudeau has adopted a lesson Donald Trump taught us all in 2016: conventional commentators, more often than not, are drastically out of touch — and leaders should trust their instincts.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(As published in The Toronto Star on September 24, 2017 and OurWindsor.ca on the same date)