All posts by Jaime Watt

Walking Trump tightrope gets trickier for Trudeau: Watt

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Last week, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced the Liberal government’s commitment to increase defence spending by more than 70 per cent over the next 10 years, boosting annual spending from $18.9 to $37.2 billion.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has positioned the increase as Canada stepping up to play a leadership role on the world stage — just as the United States turns inward.

As the U.S. rapidly transitions away from its commitments as a global leader, Freeland argues that Canada must step up, do its part, and chart its own course.

Increasingly, it appears the U.S. has become an international laggard lining up on the wrong side of history.

The world’s largest economy is threatening to leave the World Trade Organization. The U.S. president refuses to formally commit to respecting NATO’s foundational principal. The country has formally withdrawn from both the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership. And Donald Trump’s bromance with the globe’s autocrats is increasingly pushing the United States to the sidelines of international multilateral organizations.

Freeland foreshadowed the increase in defence spending in her remarks in the House of Commons on Tuesday when she said that, “to rely solely on the U.S. security umbrella would make us a client state,” and that “such a dependence would not be in Canada’s interest.”

Freeland’s speech and Sajjan’s announcement are acknowledgments that the U.S. is no longer a predictable and dependable ally, that it is heading in a fundamentally different direction than both Canada and the rest of the developed world, and that it is time for Canada stand up for what it believes in.

Freeland’s point is clear: it’s time for Canada to lead.

In short, that is the narrative the government wants Canadians to latch on to. And, to the government’s credit, that message is beginning to work.

But maybe something else is at play.

Since the presidential campaign, Trump has aggressively challenged NATO’s Article 5. He has called NATO obsolete, has argued that 23 of the 28 member nations are not paying what they should toward defence, and has suggested that even if these countries began paying their pledged two per cent of GDP, this wouldn’t be enough.

Last year, Canada’s contribution reached 1.19 per cent of GDP. Last week’s announcement will boost Canada’s defence spending to 1.4 per cent — a significant increase.

In response, senior White House officials quickly welcomed Canada’s announcement. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said he was “heartened by today’s release of Canada’s defence policy,” and a White House spokesperson tweeted that Canada’s increase in defence spending indicated that Trump was “getting results.”

Trump, who never tires of reminding us that he is a master negotiator, will undoubtedly see Trudeau’s commitment to increase defence spending as an opening gambit in not only the upcoming NAFTA negotiations, but in future dealings with the American government.

In a stroke of strategic brilliance, Trudeau and his ministers were able to successfully develop a narrative about Canadian independence and multilateralism — the “Canadian Way” — while appeasing Trump with a commitment that is central to his administration.

Political operators know domestic politics trumps foreign policy.

And domestically, Trudeau would like nothing better than to be seen as the anti-Trump.

However, Trudeau doesn’t have the same luxury as his counterparts in France and Germany, who have been publicly critical of the president. There is simply too much at stake for Canada — on issues such as trade, continental security, and the economy.

When it comes to U.S.-Canada relations, it is now harder than ever for the prime minister and his government to keep their domestic audience on board without being entirely offside toward our southern neighbours.

What we saw last week was a prime example of that challenge. Looking ahead, it’s clear Trudeau’s balancing act isn’t going to get any easier.

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

(As published in The Toronto Star on June 11, 2017)

Sunny ways for the Conservative Party: Watt

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The Conservative leadership election has come to a close, but it has opened a new chapter for a party that needed renewal.

Any party that has served in government faces challenges following an election defeat. Its brand has been buffeted by years of criticism from the opposition parties and from the media. Its players are tired and the recriminations come quickly.

Renewal can be a long and challenging process that takes several election cycles. The situations faced by the federal Liberal party in 2006 and the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in 2003 show how what seems like a temporary exile can turn into a long stay in the wilderness.

The Conservative Party of Canada has much to celebrate after last weekend.

Through the long leadership campaign, it seemed the party wouldn’t have much to rejoice about at the end of it. Media commentators and pundits panned the field of contenders as has-beens or never-weres, and dwelled on the fact that major players had opted out of running for the leadership. They panned the policy proposals as uninteresting.

But, today, the Conservative Party finds itself well-positioned.

Its already prodigious fundraising has been increasing, even in the midst of a leadership campaign populated by 14 candidates raising money from the same pool of donors.

Those major players the media called out for staying out of the race have merely gone on to other things. Jason Kenney has moved to Alberta and united the conservative movement there, creating an immediate opportunity for the province to return to the conservative fold in the next election.

John Baird and Peter MacKay have returned to the working world, but have signalled their intention to strongly support the party moving forward.

And, more importantly, the candidates that were dismissed as the second tier have demonstrated that they are capable of carrying the mantle forward.

The conservative movement in Canada has a tendency to break at the seams from time to time. The split between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Party in 1993, and the split in the parties on the right in Alberta are the most recent examples of the fragility of the movement.

Once, a result as close as 50.5 per cent to 49.5 per cent in a leadership contest would herald, at the very least, increased tensions and frustrations in the party. But party leaders and activists seem to understand the fundamental importance of maintaining a united and strong party to challenge the Liberals if they are to be successful.

The leadership contest brought to the fore fresh faces. A number of MPs who were less than prominent during the Harper era have emerged as important players.

Erin O’Toole, Maxime Bernier, Michael Chong and a host of other contenders may have lost the leadership election, but they have certainly boosted their profiles. Each can boast that they have shared their perspectives with party members, gained followers and boosted their media profile. They struggled to emerge from the shadows of the bigger Conservative players in Stephen Harper’s government, but they have demonstrated that they are ready and able to help steer the party.

Importantly, Andrew Scheer’s election as leader heralds the end of a sometimes cold Conservative Party. Scheer seems intent on reframing his party as one that is positively focused on growth for Canadians. Party members will welcome this tone.

Leadership contests often leave bruised egos and open wounds in their wakes. The aftermath produces periods of introspection and frustration.

None of that has been evident this week.

To the contrary, the new cadre of Conservative frontbenchers seems content with the results and pleased with the direction of the party. There has been none of the usual discontent and grumbling.

Many of the Conservative MPs are newly elected, since generational renewal was a goal of the Harper political machine as it approached the 2015 campaign.

That path was chosen with foresight. Today, the Conservative Party is led by a young leader who is working with a number of promising young MPs and a nearly absurd stockpile of cash.

Sunny ways, indeed!

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

Fentanyl crisis echoes mistakes of HIV/AIDS response: Watt

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Abuse of fentanyl, the highly addictive opioid pain medication, is taking a menacing toll across Canada.

Opioid-related overdoses killed 1,400 Canadians last year. To label the situation a coast-to-coast crisis is a massive understatement.

Fentanyl can be found in knock-off prescription painkillers, in party drugs and even in cocaine.

The fact that other drugs are being laced with fentanyl means that drug users often haven’t actively sought out the “thrill” of fentanyl and don’t even realize what they’ve done until it’s too late.

My firm, Navigator, has recently conducted a nationwide survey on public opinion relating to the fentanyl crisis in Canada.

Today, only half of Canadians say they are familiar with fentanyl-related issues. What’s more troubling is that those most vulnerable, those aged 16 to 17, are least familiar. Only 4 in 10 teens are aware of the crisis.

The impact has, to date, been uneven across our country and so, therefore, has awareness. For example, 70 per cent of British Columbians express awareness compared to only 49 per cent of Torontonians.

The fentanyl crisis has spread so quickly, the public hardly noticed it was happening. Government officials didn’t notice it either. As a result, it went largely unaddressed. And as so often happens, issues affecting the poorest or most vulnerable among us are the last to be noticed. It has only been as the crisis has transcended class lines and begun affecting suburban teenagers that the outcry has begun.

Also, problematically and mistakenly, the fentanyl issue has been seen primarily as a matter of criminal justice.

If it is to be dealt with successfully, it must be seen as a matter of public health. In a hospital, a person who dulls their pain with fentanyl is a patient. On the street, that same person is a criminal.

Fortunately, the current federal government has broken with its predecessor on this issue and we are starting to make progress in treating the fentanyl crisis as the public health crisis it is.

Perhaps the biggest challenge has been that the public at large has not felt, so far, that the fentanyl crisis affects them. They continue to believe it is a problem faced by addicts and drug abusers, who rely on illegal substances. There has been little public sympathy, and many people perceive fentanyl to be of little risk to them, far removed from everyday life.

It is a situation that has striking parallels to the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, an indelibly tragic mark on Western society’s record of compassion.

The existence of a life-threatening public health crisis that has no prevention plan in place would usually cause moral outrage. The outbreak of SARS and H1N1 both saw heightened government action, panicked media coverage and widespread agreement to address the issues.

But, in both the HIV/AIDS and fentanyl crises, the general population has viewed the victims as foreign. HIV/AIDS was long dismissed as a gay disease, a consequence of living an immoral lifestyle.

Action was taken only once those ostensibly “moral” judgments were challenged.

Far too many people died an unnecessary death. Western nations sat idly by as a crisis ravaged a class of people they did not deem to be important enough, or moral enough, to be worth saving. Famously, President Reagan never even uttered the words HIV or AIDS even at the height of the pandemic.

A similar crisis is developing around fentanyl. Drugs are seen as taboo by large segments of the population, and drug laws provoke passionate political responses.

As was the case with AIDS, many people believe fentanyl will never be an issue for them personally. In public policy debates, the well-being of drug addicts is rarely of prime consideration.

But it’s becoming clear fentanyl is an issue that will affect all Canadians.

Moving forward, the issue requires immediate and formal co-operation among government agencies, law enforcement groups, elected officials at all levels, the emergency management infrastructure, educators, civil society, parents and families.

It is simply not enough to sit idly by while the most vulnerable among us die of a preventable situation. This is not the first time we have found ourselves in such circumstances and we must be vigilant that it not happen again.

The fentanyl crisis, an insidious one, threatens to undermine the lessons we learned from health crises of the past.

Canada can, and must, do better.

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

(As published in The Toronto Star on May 21, 2017)

Trump’s critics crying wolf for too long: Watt

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This time, it’s different.

I have argued in the past that many of U.S. President Donald Trump’s actions have not been as harmful or dramatic as some have made them out to be.

Many Americans and media pundits overreacted to the election Trump, a man who, while considered offensive, ignorant and inflammatory by many, to a demographic of under-represented Americans who have for too long felt silenced has been a hero.

I have not agreed with most of his policy proposals or his actions, but it must be acknowledged that Trump was elected with a mandate that he has relentlessly, and often ruthlessly, carried out.

Many otherwise reasonable people have drawn unreasonable conclusions about many of Trump’s actions. Even innocuous and routine acts have been overblown by overwrought critics, who say he is an authoritarian ruler.

Critics decried the recall of politically appointed ambassadors. They howled when district attorneys across the country were dismissed, to be replaced by new ones named by Trump. When Trump shamed big corporations for cutting jobs, he was assailed for interfering in the market and overstepping the appropriate bounds of the presidency.

Critics said these things proved Trump was unfit for office and that the president was unworthy of governing the country.

But many of these things routinely occurred under former presidents of both parties. Voters become used to the whiplash: Trump does something that is decried as vastly inappropriate in the media, and then the action is revealed to be perfectly reasonable.

It’s a cycle that has lent itself to a voter fatigue with the anti-Trump forces, as I wrote two weeks ago. But perhaps more importantly, it recalls the fable of the boy who cried wolf. The near-constant outcry over Trump’s actions has served to make the public deaf to actual infractions.

This feeds into Trump’s bids to defend the indefensible.

But the firing of FBI Director James Comey is different. It is not business as usual in Washington, coming as it did amid the agency’s investigation of Russian intervention in the presidential election.

It is unconscionable for a president to remove the person responsible for investigating him. The removal of Comey is a wilful subjugation of the rules and processes that a democratic nation must support.

The 2016 election was a deeply flawed election in many ways. However, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton for a number of reasons — not only, or even mostly, due to Russian intervention. As much as it pains CNN, he defeated her fair and square.

But any sensible observer would say that concern about Russia’s possible interference has risen to a point where it needs to be independently investigated and addressed.

That investigation has, from an optical point of view at the very least, been both damaged and compromised by Trump’s actions last week.

The administration’s justifications for Comey’s firing don’t even begin to make sense: they range from blaming others who report to Trump, to pretending this is what Democrats wanted all along. What’s more, those justifications change literally hour by hour depending on who is put up as a talking head on TV or who is lurking behind the White House bushes.

It is clear that the firing was personally motivated, and aimed at undermining the FBI investigation. It is equally clear the administration did not have a plan, or any semblance of a strategy, in firing Comey.

As many have commented, the situation is startlingly similar to Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, where the soon-to-be-disgraced president oversaw the firing of a special prosecutor responsible for investigating his overstepping. Both the attorney general and deputy attorney general at the time resigned in protest of the move.

Nine months later, Nixon resigned in disgrace.

We likely should not expect the same to happen today.

The little boy who cried wolf is back. The constant outcries against every action Trump has taken are coming back to haunt those who are desperate to protect America’s democratic institutions. Simply put, many voters are tired of the critics’ accusations, exaggerations, and the melodrama that comes along with all of the sky is falling talk.

This latest development is indeed a clear-cut case of unacceptable, inappropriate presidential wrongdoing.

And yet, there is so little public trust in traditional institutions and those that lead them that voters have simply tuned their messages out. Polls agree.

A week that before James Comey was fired, just 31 per cent of Republicans believed he should lose his job. Last week, despite the virtual unanimous criticism of Trump’s action, that number was up to 62 per cent.

It is hard not to feel pessimistic about the future of the democratic institutions of the United States — and even harder to decide where to lay the blame.

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

(As published in The Toronto Star on May 14, 2017)

POLITICAL PERSPECTIVES – CAMPAIGN DAY 38

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By: Jaime Watt

Today marks the 38th  day of a 78-day marathon election campaign. Many political observers tell us today, the first day after Labour Day, is the first real day of the campaign. Conventional wisdom tells us Canadians were more focused on fun in the sun than on digesting granular policy announcements; that Canadians have returned to their fall routine and their attention will begin to focus on an election campaign that until now has been a phony war.
I don’t believe this to be true.

As you may know, ENsight has a new specialized research team that has been in the field studying, tracking, and analyzing the mood of Canadians for months.

We have seen in wave-after-wave of surveys that, contrary to the assertions of pundits, Canadians are highly aware of the choices before them and have strong opinions on our political options.

Policy priorities remain set
Canadians have shown remarkable consistency in their policy preferences, with a few notable shifts. The campaign has been dominated by discussions about the economy, and this is reflected in our polling. Economic issues, including lowering taxes, growing the economy, and protecting the middle class, were identified as the most important issue by 6 out of 10 Canadians. Issues like national daycare and mail delivery to homes simply fall by the wayside when contrasted with economic issues.

Concern about direction of the country
For several months, Canadians have become increasingly pessimistic over the state of the economy, the direction of the economy, and indeed the Prime Minister himself. Our team has seen the number of Canadians saying that the economy was in a state of decline rise rapidly from 40% in March to 58% today. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the places those are most pessimistic about the economy are Quebec and Atlantic Canada, where the government has found it especially difficult to garner much traction.

While the Conservatives may be quibbling over the definition of an economic recession, Canadians seem to have largely made up their minds: 53% agree with the fact that Canada is now in recession. A paltry 17% disagree.
Perhaps even more worrying for the Conservatives is that negative opinion about the direction of the federal government has consistently risen. In March, only 35% of Canadians disapproved with the direction of the federal government, with 29% answering that it was headed in the right direction. Contrast that with today, where only 22% agree the government is headed in the right direction with 42% disagreeing.

Prime Minister Harper’s personal favourability numbers, never an impressive score, have also suffered. Every generation of Canadians and every province save one have an overall negative opinion of the Prime Minister.

Underlying numbers tell the story
It is with these numbers in mind that I say that Canadians have been paying attention. There have been trends for several months that have foretold the slow sinking of the government’s support, and the slow rise of the NDP. Mr. Mulcair’s rise has not been a flash in the pan that only occurred in the absence of public attention; rather his rise has been deliberate and coincided with Canadians’ political opinions growing increasingly out of step with the government. His personal favourability numbers have increased, while Mr. Trudeau’s and Prime Minister Harper’s have sunk in the face of negative attention. The New Democratic coalition is real, and to dismiss it as a summer phenomenon is to ignore a real shift in Canadian public opinion.

This is not to say that recovery is impossible for the Conservatives, or that a resurgence is impossible for Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals. Both parties have leaders who are gifted campaigners with messages that could be compelling to different regions of Canada. Both parties have core strengths that make it impossible to rule them out as potential governments on October 20th. As Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once said in response to what he feared most in an election campaign, “Events, my dear boy, events.”

But October 19th is only six weeks away, and time is quickly slipping away. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Harper must quickly regain their footing and reshape the narrative of this campaign, or we will be waking up on October 20th contemplating the election of our first NDP government.

Jaime Watt is the Executive Chairman of Navigator Ltd. and Principal of ENsight Canada. He specializes in complex public strategy issues, serving both domestic and international clients in the corporate, professional services, not-for-profit, and government sectors. ‪He is a trusted advisor to business leaders as well as political leaders at all three levels of government across Canada. Jaime has led ground-breaking election campaigns that have transformed politics because of their boldness and creativity.