All posts by Jesse Robichaud

A proposal for region building in Atlantic Canada: Jesse Robichaud

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Ensight consultant Jesse Robichaud’s column originally appeared in the St. John’s Telegram, Charlottetown Guardian and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Follow Jesse on Twitter @writeJR.

Sure, it seemed old-fashioned. When Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil visited the province’s Lieutenant Governor last Sunday to trigger a May 30 general election, he was the last provincial or federal politician in Canada with the power to do so purely on his own accord.

As if too much spontaneity was the problem discouraging us all to vote, legislated voting dates have taken some of the fun out of Canadian politics without producing any great revival of democratic engagement. An unintended by-product has been a move to interminable, American-style campaigning that leads in to the official writ period.

Refreshingly, the province which celebrates itself as the birthplace of parliamentary democracy in Canada is the only one left in the country that hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon of legislated election dates.

But wait! That Nova Scotia hasn’t yet given in to the trend of fixed election dates may yet present an opportunity to build a more formal foundation for meaningful cooperation across Atlantic Canada.

The release of 2016 Census numbers this week is the latest grim reminder that massive change is needed to stem the tide of the sinking economic, fiscal and demographic metrics afflicting the entire region. The brand of region-building projects needed to turn things around in the East are the same types of major projects that most governments aren’t comfortable undertaking when there is an election waiting around the corner. And the problem in Atlantic Canada is there is always an election waiting around the corner.

With four election cycles in play at all times, it leaves only a few limited windows of opportunity to strike big, game-changing partnerships and initiatives, the kind Atlantic Canada needs today to reset its economic, fiscal and demographic course.

One practical way to widen that window of opportunity would be to finally establish a fixed election date in Nova Scotia and align it and the election dates of each other Atlantic province.

This would move voters, and their leaders, to the same political tide clock, one that can serve as a platform to improve the lives of the 2.3 million people who call Canada’s East Coast home.

In the Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, the idea of forming a Maritime Union is indeed as old as Canada itself. The Fathers of Confederation hijacked the idea and stretched it west. Now, why can’t the idea be reclaimed, reengineered and stretched eastward from the Appalachian range into the North Atlantic?

Proponents of a formal union of Maritime or Atlantic provinces make many compelling points, but it is terribly unlikely it will gain any traction before it is too late.

Alternatively, a coordinated election date would not only address the issue of political hibernation around campaign and pre-campaign countdowns, it would also provide the opportunity to present voters across the region with referenda on major questions, such as governance of utilities, Crown Corporations, and new policy positions on internal and foreign trade, labour, and immigration.

Think of how common election mandates might embolden premiers to work together to establish positions on urgent matters like softwood lumber tariffs, the renegotiation of NAFTA, and changes to resource rules like fishing quotas.

By working together more formally and creatively, Atlantic Canada can move in the polar-opposite direction of the go-it-alone zeitgeist that has propelled Brexit and Trump-brand politics, and build a collective strength that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Of course, political parties will argue there is already plenty of cooperation going on between the provinces, but that is mostly when cooperation is convenient. Political convenience on really big, important issues is too rare to count on. In Atlantic Canada, premiers share an undeniably genuine desire to improve life in their home provinces, but they also share an equally genuine desire to be re-elected.

These two genuine desires don’t interfere with each other in and of themselves, but when it comes to working together on big ideas and initiatives across provincial lines, the timing of elections are getting in the way of transformative action.

POLITICAL PERSPECTIVES – BATTLEGROUND QUEBEC FOUGHT ON TWO FRONTS

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By: Jesse Robichaud

Quebec’s volatile political landscape can be a true jungle for federal leaders as they balance their efforts in the province and across the country. It is one of the true tests that must be faced by any future prime minister, and it will reach a fever pitch in this evening’s pressure-filled French-language debate.

Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney’s breakthrough in his home province in 1984 powered his way to a 211 seat majority and the largest electoral win in Canadian history.  Mulroney’s experience demonstrates the political spoils that lay between the province’s Ontario and Atlantic boundaries, but it also highlights the perils leaders face as they attempt to communicate on Quebec issues both within the province and outside its borders.

Indeed, following rounds of damaging constitutional negotiations revolving around Quebec, Mulroney’s winning coalition was decimated on both battlefronts, giving rise to the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party.

The damage sustained by Mulroney both within Quebec and points West as a result of his approach toward Quebec highlights the two sets of calculations today’s federal leaders will be making as they face-off for the first time in French in this evening’s debate.

The first calculation facing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is the most obvious one. They each want to maximize their seat count in the province’s 78-riding battlefield. Mulcair is expected to win the most seats in the province, and Trudeau is expected to score some gains but the jury is still out on whether he will accomplish a meaningful breakthrough.

Questions remain on whether the Conservatives will see their vote collapse any further than in 2011, or whether they can target traditionally Conservative ridings in the Quebec City area to inch closer to their goal of retaining government.

Beyond Quebec’s seats, however, each leader must also calculate how his approach to Quebec impacts his overall strategy and how it is perceived in the rest of Canada where the battle lines are drawn up in very different ways.

In 2011, Harper proved it was possible to win a majority government without a significant number of seats in Quebec, and he did it by working to effectively make Quebec’s issues relative non-issues in the rest of Canada. That allowed the Conservatives to draw up messaging that worked in Canada’s predominantly English-speaking provinces that didn’t necessarily need to resonate in Quebec. The result was a Conservative campaign with concise messaging, clean execution, and fewer misfires than previous efforts.

The path travelled by Harper in 2011 is not an option for Mulcair, whose relevance as a contender is built on his party’s strength in Quebec. For his part, Trudeau does not have sufficient support in Western Canada to win anything without a solid showing in Canada’s second most populous province.

The problem for both opposition challengers is that Quebec is not an easy place to make political calculations that work in the province and in the rest of Canada, and therein lies a significant advantage for Harper between this first French-language debate and October 19.

The dual implications of Quebec politics may help to explain why the Liberal campaign chose Hamilton, Ontario of all places as the backdrop to launch a double-barrelled attack against NDP leader Thomas Mulcair on September 13 for his positions on national unity, the Clarity Act, and Quebec independence.

Leading the attack was former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a cagey and successful veteran of federal politics and the Quebec political landscape. Chrétien understands how a message can play within Quebec and outside the province, in French of in English. In fact, he even took time to criticize Mulcair for saying different things in French in Quebec and outside the province in English.

It is a criticism that has been hurled at Trudeau in this very same campaign, at Chrétien in past campaigns, and likely against all leaders who have faced the challenge of finding the right balance on the tightrope of federal politics in Quebec and the rest of Canada. The question that remains is which leader will be able to perform the balancing act most successfully on both battlefronts.

Jesse Robichaud is an ENsight consultant with more than a decade of experience in public affairs. He served as press secretary to the Premier of New Brunswick following his experience as a political correspondent.