All posts by Matt Triemstra

MPs Suit Up for Battle – Don Newman on the upcoming Fall session of Parliament

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Parliament is set to resume on Monday, so we sat down with Ensight’s Don Newman to talk about what we could expect to see and what to watch closely.

1. How would you rank Trudeau and the Liberals this summer?

I would rank them lucky. Almost halfway through their first term and they are still comfortably ahead in the polls, at a time when usually a government is facing declining support.

The Liberals have stayed on top despite the unpopular $10-million settlement to Omar Khadar, and despite the now festering controversy over punitive changes to people who have turned themselves into corporations for tax purposes.

The potential problem of still being so popular half way through the mandate is that when their popularity inevitably dips, they will be closer to the next election.

2. Given the recent cabinet shuffle, who are the Liberal ministers to watch this session?

‎Most of the Ministers to watch are not ones that were shuffled. But of those who were, Seamus O’Regan in the quagmire that is Veterans Affairs is probably the one to keep your eye on. Also, how the splitting of Indigenous Affairs into two portfolios with Jane Philpott joining Carolyn Bennett to deal with those intractable problems will be interesting.

But on a day to day basis, Finance Minister Bill Morneau with tax changes and deficits, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr with the Trans-Mount‎ain Pipeline and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland with NAFTA, will be front and center.

3. The beginning of this session marks two years in power for the Liberals. So far, has Justin Trudeau delivered? And what does he need to do to ramp up for the 2019 election?

Well Trudeau promised “Sunny Ways” and certainly the mood of the country seems better than under the previous government. That’s atmospherics, but it has to count for something.

On the bigger issues, the Liberals now have to show more progress on big ticket items, like the infrastructure bank and actually getting more shovels in the ground and projects started.

By 2019 they will have to show that they finessed the pipeline issue‎ in B.C. That won’t be easy, with the energy industry and the Alberta Government on one side, and environmentalist and the British Columbia Government on the other.

The Indigenous file has the never-ending potential to go sideways. Look at the difficulties getting the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous women under-way.

And of course, the ongoing NAFTA negotiations are a wild card, with the unpredictable President Donald Trump a wild card himself.

4. What’s your best bet for Opposition Leader Andrew Sheer’s first question in Question Period?

Barring some unforeseeable‎ event that captures the headlines that day, the first question will be about tax changes for incorporated small businesses, and the people who currently benefit from the present system.

5. Who in the Conservative ‘shadow cabinet’ is best placed to be effective in their role as critic?

The Finance critic, Pierre Poilievre. I don’t think he knows much about finance but he certainly knows a lot about politics and he plays a rough game in the House of Commons.

The Official Opposition‎ believes that Finance Minister Bill Morneau is a relatively weak performer and they have put their pit bull opposite him. They also think he is vulnerable on both corporate taxes and deficits. Morneau is a relative newcomer to politics and a gentleman. Neither description would apply to Poilievre.

The session will also be a testing period for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. He narrowly won the party leadership last June‎. Now Conservatives will see if they made the right choice.

6. What will be the “sleeper issue” this fall?

Because if there is one it will be a “sleeper’ so it is impossible to predict. However that doesn’t minimize its importance. When Harold MacMillan was retiring after seven years as British Prime Minister, a reporter asked him what his most difficult problems had been.

“Events, dear boy,” he said, “events.”

The unforeseen crisis, and the way a government responds to it, often are the difference between a successful government and one that isn’t.

7. How will the Senate co-operate with the Government with so many Independent Senators and things like the marijuana legislation coming down the pipe.

Before the summer recess it appeared the Senate might dig in its heels and fail to pass the budget bill. In the end enough of the Independents agreed they could not go against the will of the elected House of Commons. The Senate will propose amendments to the marijuana bill. Some may be accepted by the Government, and others won’t. But ultimately, I think the Senate will come to the same conclusion it did last spring. It might delay, but it won’t defeat.

Pivot, Pivot, Pivot: The dog days of summer have arrived, pivot but don’t halt your GR efforts

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The Ottawa bubble has all but emptied and we have arrived at the dog days of summer. MPs are at BBQ’s and ribbon cuttings, political staff are recovering from a gruelling parliamentary session and Ministers are on hiatus and basking in the glow of no daily question period. And while the actual machinery of government doesn’t completely grind to a halt, it certainly slows to a snail’s pace. But your organization still has government relations goals and priorities, so how do you advance them?

The answer is not halting your GR efforts, the answer is pivoting and looking regionally.

If you are like me, you can’t hear the word ‘pivot’ without hearing it yelled by Ross Gellar from Friends while trying to move a couch up a stairwell and while pivoting didn’t end up working for them, it will work for your organization.

When MPs are in Ottawa they are typically inundated with national priorities. Legislation, motions, committee responsibilities, but in general those things don’t always help ensure an MP’s re-election. Their summer ‘break’ is their opportunity to reconnect directly with their constituents and frankly is not a break whatsoever, for as much as these MPs enjoy being associated with a party, it is there dedication to their constituents that is essential to their re-election.

So for your organization, engaging with MPs locally should be high on your priority list. During the summer months, instead of asking how the government can help you, ask how your asks can help advance your MP’s re-election goals? If you have members across the country, this is the perfect time to motivate them to meet locally with MPs in their constituency offices.

Secondly, the summer months provide a great opportunity to work on re-tooling your asks of government. Work on your pre-budget submission, dig into legislation that you didn’t have the capacity to review in detail in the spring, map out the parliamentary calendar throughout the upcoming year and take the time to ensure your priorities match up with the government’s agenda. If your organization isn’t talking about NAFTA, then maybe it’s time to enter the conversation since it is literally seizing everyone in government?

Third, how can you use the summer months to build the social capital you need to build political capital in Ottawa? While business Ottawa may be asleep, that doesn’t mean that the government isn’t listening.

How can you dust off your digital arsenal to ensure that you can build broad based public support and use research to bolster your asks and give the government the confidence they need to say yes to you.

For many of us in government relations, the summer months represent a reprieve of the daily House of Commons drama and while you may need to take a much needed and deserved vacation, don’t take your foot off the gas of your GR goals during the summer. Pivot to meeting your MPs regionally and retooling your asks, but don’t halt all together, because the effort you put in during the summer months will pay off dividends in the long run. And to close with a final Friends reference, remember that you’ll never be ‘on a break’ from government!

Ready, Set, Spend: Six questions to ask if your organization is ready to participate in the 2018 Pre-Budget Consultations

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Earlier this month, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance launched their 2018 Pre-Budget Consultations.  This is the venue for organizations, corporations and Canadians alike to submit their ideas for where the government should be spending money in 2018.  The 10 Members of Parliament on the Finance Committee, chaired by MP Wayne Easter, will devote a considerable amount of time to reviewing all the submissions, hearing from witnesses and ultimately tabling a final report in Parliament.  The report will be considered by the Minister of Finance as he develops next year’s budget.

So if you are an organization in Canada with an idea, why should you participate in this process?  Here are six questions to ask your organization:

1. Why should we bother making a submission?

This is the Government of Canada’s formal mechanism for collecting information from Canadians on what to include in Budget 2018.  All the submissions are shared with a committee of 10 Members of Parliament and you may also have the opportunity to appear as a witness before the committee. While not every item eventually included in the final budget will have gone through this process, it does allow for you to formally put your request on record.  For your organization, your pre-budget submission becomes an important tool to showcase your asks of government and provides an opportunity to bring your issues forward through all media channels; you can frame a release or op ed around your asks and your rationale.

2. Does our proposal align with current government initiatives?

Early in the life of Justin Trudeau’s government, the Prime Minister took what was an unprecedented move by releasing the cabinet mandate letters to the public.  These letters included the specific initiatives that each Minister would be responsible for. The priorities draw heavily from the commitments in the Liberal campaign platform and Ministers are expected to track and report on the progress of their commitments in order to get results. Fast forward 18 months and the mandate letters continue to hold sway, to the point where stakeholders who cannot align with the mandate letters are virtually ignored.

Not every ask of government will always align nicely with the priorities of the middle class, nor do they always need to, but where possible, every effort should be made in your pre-budget submission to remind MPs and Ministers on how you can help them deliver on the objectives articulated in their mandate letters.

3. Do we have cross party support for our asks?

This is a majority liberal government, so ultimately the Liberals can pass anything they choose, but that’s not good politics and is certainly now how sunny ways is supposed to work.  Your pre-budget submission allows you the opportunity to reach out to MPs on all sides of the aisles for support.  You’ll need that support when MPs have to agree on a witness list and you’ll need that cross party support to have your recommendations included in the final report that is reviewed by the Minister of Finance.

4. Do we have public support?

In addition to MP support, you need to ask yourself if your proposal has public support amongst everyday Canadians. Will what you’re asking for be well received by the public?  Is it an easy sell for the Government? Also for a government committed to evidence-based policy, can you point to a body of peer reviewed research or data that supports what you are asking for? Additionally, this pre-budget period is used by the government as a way to identify high priority community projects that they can greenlight and roll out over next summer – just months before the next campaign begins, and the more you can point to broad support from other stakeholders and Canadians, the easier it will be for the Government to include in the budget. Social and civic capital = Political capital.

5. What does success look like?

It’s actually not the norm for specific companies or organization to be named in a Budget, unless there is a politically safe and legitimate reason to do so.  In general, it is the role of the federal government to create the right programs and funding mechanisms, to allow as many organizations as possible a chance to succeed.  So instead of asking what you could do with 1 million dollars, ask how the government could invest 1 million dollars in a fund that you could access.

6. What will it take to achieve our ask in the budget?

Finally, if you are an organization committed to making a pre-budget submission, you’ll want to know what it will take to drive it across the finish line.  Ultimately you will need an internal champion within government, someone who will push to see your wish list realized. Many stakeholders assume that they need to lobby the Department of Finance, but ultimately the Minister of Finance will be receiving recommendations from his cabinet colleagues.  So if the lead Minister in your portfolio doesn’t include your item on their wish list, it becomes a much harder sell with Finance.  Your efforts need to be focused on relevant MPs and Ministers to ensure that they all support your asks and in turn that your lead Minister places your project on their priority list that they submit to Finance.  After that it will just take a determined and sustained effort to get in front of the right audiences and ensure that you have the right buy in from Canadians.

Conclusion

Ready, Set, Spend!

This may seem like jumping through hoops, but it is an important part of the democratic process.  The Government is sincere in its desire to hear the feedback from Canadians, but given the competition for a limited pool of funding, make sure your organizations asks yourselves those key six questions if you want to stand apart from the rest.

POLITICAL PERSPECTIVES – GROUNDHOG DAY: THE 2004 ELECTION ALL OVER AGAIN?

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By: Matt Triemstra

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray famously quips, “do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs. Lancaster?  To which Mrs. Lancaster replies “I don’t think so, but I could check with the kitchen.”  For many avid political watchers there is a sense of déjà vu as we compare the current 2015 election campaign to the one 11 years ago in 2004 when the Liberal Party was reduced to a minority government by the newly formed Conservative Party of Canada.

In 2004, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin began the election with a majority government and 168 Members of Parliament.  Fast forward to 2015 and we see the Conservatives under Stephen Harper also beginning with a majority government, at 170 seats.

In 2004 the Liberal Party was plagued by the sponsorship scandal.  In 2015 the Conservative Party is besieged by Senate scandals.

Additionally, in 2004 the Liberals were campaigning on the slogan “Moving Canada Forward”, similar in positive tone to the Conservative 2015 slogan of “Proven Leadership. Strong Economy”.  And both governing parties were faced with opposition parties campaigning on themes of change.  In 2004 it was the Conservative slogan of “Demand Better” versus today when we have not one, but two parties campaigning on change. The Liberal Party of Canada who is looking for #RealChange, which is not to be confused with the NDP, who are “Ready for Change.”

The good news for the Conservatives is that the Liberals did retain power in 2004, but only with a minority government.  But the bad news is that with the benefit of hindsight many saw that as the beginning of the end for the Liberal Party, who would go to one of their worst showings by 2011.

Now the reality is that 11 years later the political landscape is of course drastically different and Canadians are viewing an unprecedented three way tie of the major political parties.  But similar to 2004, with all parties polling around 30%, a minority government is looking like a realistic scenario.

Also similar to 2004, the electorate will be faced with a stark choice on October 19, 2015.  A Prime Minister who they feel has been at the helm too long but represents stability or one of two parties that embody the change they believe this country needs.

The 2004 election marked a shift in Canada’s political ideology.  The Liberals were reduced to a minority and over the course of the next 11 years, Canadians swung further to the right of the spectrum under consecutive Conservative Governments.  2015 sees us in a remarkably similar situation and the question is, can the Conservatives continue the swing or, like any pendulum, will the opposition parties be able to force the swing back?   In short we are in unprecedented territory with a three way race and there is simply no predicting the outcome on October 19.

But one thing is certain, with a typical full length campaign ahead of us, anything can happen. To quote from Groundhog Day once more, when Bill Murray is told that you “can’t plan for a day like this” he responds with “Well you can. It just takes an awful lot of work.”  And that is exactly what all three political parties have to do in the next 5 weeks…an awful lot of work.

Matt Triemstra is a Director at ENsight Canada where he provides public affairs advice.  He has over a decade of experience consulting and working for Conservative Members of Parliament and the Conservative Resource Group on Parliament Hill.

POLITICAL PERSPECTIVES – THE VALUE OF A 78 DAY CAMPAIGN

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By Matt Triemstra

I have heard many people bemoaning the fact that, at 78 days, this will be a long election. Canadians are already complaining that they don’t want to be bombarded with election ads, door knocking and lawn signs littered over their fair cities for such a lengthy period of time.  And in fact, they are right.  This will be the longest campaign in modern Canadian history.

Now if you live in our nation’s capital of Ottawa you may still be blissfully unaware that the 42nd federal election has even begun, because you haven’t seen a single lawn sign. That’s because the city has by-laws that state how many days in advance of Election Day that signs can be put up. But lawn signs aren’t the end all be all of a campaign and can often be distracting from the real issues.  The more time candidates spend rushing to put their signs up the less they have to door knock or phone and make a personal connection with the voter. So perhaps Ottawa residents are lucky that the lawn signs will be avoided temporarily, forcing the candidates to interact with them in a more direct way and have more meaningful discussions.

Because that’s what we should all want isn’t it? A more meaningful dialogue during this 42nd election. We have to face the facts that in the 2011 campaign, at only 38 days, that the voter turnout was only 61.1%, meaning that 4 in 10 Canadians didn’t bother voting.  Reasons for not voting range from general apathy to complaints like we never see politicians and don’t understand the policy planks, to a general lack of motivation.  Increasing the campaign from 38 to 78 days should give Canadians the time they need to make an informed decision and give candidates the time they need to meet and engage with their constituents.  Of course none of us likes it when the candidate rings our doorbell and wakes the kids, but it is the reality of campaigns that politicians can’t wait for the voter to come to them, they have to go to the voter, whether the voter likes it or not.

I understand that the average Canadian is still in vacation mode, but the decision about which party to vote for and which leader presents the best vision for Canada is important. So next time you want to complain about the length of this campaign and how you’d rather avoid more calls, door knocking and signs, remember that these things are a small price to pay for to see our voter turnout increase. And maybe, just maybe, a 78 day campaign will lead to more engagement by Canadians.

Matt Triemstra is a Director at ENsight Canada where he provides public affairs advice.  He spent nearly five years working for Conservative Members of Parliament and the Conservative Resource Group on Parliament Hill.