Category Archives: Blog

Jagmeet Singh’s First Test As Leader: Mackenzie

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The truest test of Singh’s mettle does not lie in Quebec. Singh’s greatest test for 2019 will be helping his old colleagues in their 2018 Ontario election bid. Ensight’s Shane Mackenzie in Loonie Politics on this:.

The new kid on the national block, former Deputy Leader of the Ontario NDP and MPP Jagmeet Singh, has recently swung from provincial to federal NDP politics. He’s settling into the new role as leader of Canada’s NDP, having recently tendered his resignation as MPP for Bramalea—Gore—Malton. Without a seat in the House of Commons, Singh has plans for a cross-country tour to introduce himself to Canadians, with weekly Wednesday stops in Ottawa to meet with his Parliamentary colleagues.

Although, like any new leader – he’s untested. The readiness test of Justin Trudeau was a key focal point (and soundbite) of the last federal campaign.

Readiness was perhaps a proxy for Stephen Harper to make increased age into a virtue for him and Mulcair, possibly as a tactic to squeeze out Trudeau. It clearly backfired. It merely activated some ageist tendencies in his existing base.

Admittedly for the average, moderate voter, “Is he ready?” was still a lingering question on the doorstep during the campaign. Trudeau had to be relentless in his positive message, touring, and ads.

Last week, there were two federal by-elections, including a region of supposed strength for the NDP: Québec. In Lac-Saint-Jean, former Conservative Minister and Quebec political chieftain Denis Lebel resigned his seat. The Conservatives were hoping to hold onto it, while the NDP were hoping to show how bilingual and strong their new leader was. The Bloc Québécois was hoping to regain the seat they held up until Lebel took it.

They all faced an upset in watching it shift over to the governing Liberals who are polling highly in the province.

Singh campaigned in the riding, and was hoping it would show new energy in his party. The NDP placed fourth.

While it may be too early to read the result of week’s by-election in Lac-Saint-Jean as a bad omen for Singh’s tenure, it certainly wasn’t a great start. There has been a continued decline of seats for the NDP in the province since Jack Layton’s Orange wave in 2011.

Frankly, the truest test of Singh’s mettle does not lie in Quebec. Singh’s greatest test for 2019 will be helping his old colleagues in their 2018 Ontario election bid and it hinges on whether he can deliver ‘905’ ridings there. In particular his home regions of Scarborough, Brampton, and Mississauga.

Premier Horwath would put the winds in his sails. He may have seen his old boss as in his way to winning – as somehow he didn’t see a path to getting himself to the Premier’s office – yet better results for the Ontario NDP would set a narrative of the federal NDP being ready for primetime.

Also last week, Singh and Horwath met to do a chummy photo-op and commit to working together to beat incumbent Premier Kathleen Wynne in the next provincial election.

In the last provincial Ontario election, newly minted federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau campaigned side-by-side with Wynne and the Ontario Liberals, despite no official connection between the parties. That tie served him well a year later in 2015.

Additionally, Kathleen Wynne’s formidable campaigning skills and a deep Liberal bench in the GTA mean that the Ontario Liberals can’t yet be counted out.

It is clear that in battleground Mississauga-Brampton ridings, the real test has begun.

This won’t be an easy road for Singh and the Ontario NDP, however. Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown will emphasize his friendship with Narendra Modi as well as a newfound embracing of diversity within his party.

Beyond outreach to the Hindu community, he has been aggressively courting the Tamil community and has been in Gurdwaras across the region. These are lessons that may also be coming from Alykhan Velshi, Brown’s Chief of Staff.

Velshi cut his political teeth as Director of Communications and Senior Special Assistant to Jason Kenney in his time as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity as well as his role as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. This launched him into the Prime Minister’s Office by 2011 as Director of Planning.

Brown sees that Kenney-esque multicultural outreach approach as his secret weapon to pulling the vote back to the Conservative fold. On the other hand, battleground suburban GTA swung during the last federal election from the Conservatives to the Liberals. Getting them back provincially is a linchpin in the PC strategy.

The only thing that could counteract that: Jagmeet Singh using his time in the non-elected wilderness to try to bring people into the NDP fold. While Trudeau and Scheer are stuck in the parliamentary pageantry of Question Period, Singh can devote his entire schedule to building a formidable grassroots apparatus. He has already spent time campaigning provincially in BC during his leadership campaign. This is in his wheelhouse and is his home turf.

If Singh can show early Ontario results, he can carry that momentum to improve the federal NDP fortunes. A strong showing in Ontario next year could translate into 2019 momentum – just as it did for the Liberals. He has his shot lined up, although pulling it off will require hope and hard work.

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)

The Retail Reset: The Trudeau Government Stares Down The Mid-Mandate Litany

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Ensight’s John Delacourt takes a look at the tea leaves and where the government is at mid-mandate in a new media landscape.

It was just last September that Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government in Ontario seized the opportunity of a mid-mandate Speech from the Throne to counter a significant wave of attacks – from both the Opposition and the media – with regard to Wynne’s future and her inner circle of advisors’, given a recent by-election loss in what should have been a safe Liberal seat (Scarborough-Rouge River) and a series of missteps and scandals that had put the Premier’s approval rating below twenty percent. The “social justice Premier” announced her government would remove the provincial sales tax off electricity bills and create 100,000 new child care spaces. This should have been a quick win, red meat thrown to her base with such widespread appeal it would halt, if not reverse, approval numbers that were in free fall.

The rationale to put such people-pleasing “retail” political announcements in a mid-mandate speech is both tried and true; a government can shake off issues that stubbornly refuse to die and remind voters of all the appealing things about the government’s brand that got them elected in the first place. But now, fast-forward a year later, and Wynne’s approval rating has only gotten worse, key members of her Cabinet have announced they’re not running again and the former Liberal stronghold of safe GTA ridings has eroded beyond recognition. Confounding mid-mandate wisdom, the “retail reset” was a bust.

Though the Trudeau government is in a very different place mid-mandate, the Wynne example is instructive. Given the new media landscape where, via social media platforms, supporters by and large only read supportive pieces and opponents of the government are able to bypass everything but the negative because of the “filter bubbles” created in what shows up in our news feeds, the opportunity to sway public opinion with such retail resets is limited to a subset of the electorate that is less committed – but also less engaged. The power of momentum with regard to corrosion of a government’s brand qualities however, has, unfortunately, only increased.

Negative momentum matters more than ever, and, as Hillary Clinton will confirm for you if you mention James Comey, scandals can’t be dismissed and made to go away quite like they used to be.

Two years before the next campaign here in Ottawa, the Opposition’s litany of Liberal reversals, failures or “betrayals” if you will, is established and frequently cited by the pundits. Electoral reform, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Inquiry, the Innovation Agenda and the big social infrastructure spend that has yet to kick into high gear … these issues should be seared on the minds of voters by now.

However, as James Carville, former advisor to Bill Clinton famously said about Democrats in Opposition, “they produce a narrative, we produce a litany.” All polling numbers affirm that the Liberals’ overarching narrative of fairness for the middle class (yes, “and those hoping to join it”) still coheres effectively, bolstered in this week’s fiscal update by the increase to the Canada Child Benefit payments and the expansion of the Working Income Tax Benefit program. Most important, factoring in the true indicators on the economy’s bill of health – the job creation numbers and the declining debt to GDP ratio, it’s a rosy picture indeed.

And yet … about that villa. And the blind trust thing. And oh yeah, that stuff about loopholes the one percent were taking advantage of, told to us by the guy with the villa …that he seemed to forget he owned … and then the conflicts with those government contracts for his family’s firm … all these revelations start to take the shape and form of a scandal, the government’s first. It is too early to tell if the opposition finally has a narrative it can latch on to and not simply a litany anymore. But when real brand corrosion begins, well … just ask Kathleen Wynne what that might mean.

A former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau, John Delacourt is Vice President of Ensight.

John Delacourt: How Today’s Fiscal Update Sets the Stage for Budget 2018 and Beyond

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Given the serialized episodes of Morneau’s trial in the press over the last month, accompanied by the mid-mandate report cards that are at pains to concede sound policy decisions by this government, what has been lost in these efforts to reframe the last two years are two salient facts that have telegraphed today’s fiscal update:

  • The turning point of the 2015 campaign did not emerge from the cumulative effect of thousands of selfies with Trudeau as he criss-crossed the country, despite what one revisionist version of events would have you believe. The numbers started to move in a favourable direction for the Liberals when Trudeau, at a campaign stop in the last week of August, announced that a Liberal government would run deficits for three straight years in order to commit funding for infrastructure and growing the economy. It firmly placed the Liberals in fiscal territory to the left of Mulcair’s campaign platform, never mind Harper’s. Canadians responded, intuiting there might be something to be said for a more expansive vision for social infrastructure and for social programs.
  • The mid-mandate report card that has ultimately mattered was issued in July of this year, when Bank of Canada President Stephen Poloz raised the bank’s benchmark lending rate from 0.5 to .75 percent. At the time, Poloz remarked upon the policy decisions from the Trudeau government that had spurred the economy and allowed for a far more positive outlook than was emerging even at the time of the last budget: “For instance, the changes to the [Canada] child benefit program has [sic] been highly stimulative: You can see that in the consumption figures. So we would not be where we are today if that had not occurred.”

And, so, a commitment to prioritize stimulative measures over taming deficits, with the new indexing of the Canada Child Benefit as the centerpiece to this fiscal update, should not be a surprise to anyone. The economy is humming along, doing better than any reliable non-partisan economist – including Poloz – would have predicted. And there is evidence of Liberal policy decisions contributing greatly to this state of affairs. One can criticize this update’s timing, of course, and mutter that this is about cushioning Morneau’s rather warm seat in the House right now, but what government, regardless of party or leader, would not be talking about what it’s getting right, and why it has mattered for the economy?

The argument about collateral damage to the Liberal brand, given how challenged this government has been on a few fronts, should not be minimized, of course. From the faltering Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Inquiry (MMIW) to the reversal on electoral reform to the albatross of the Phoenix Pay System scandal, the Opposition benches do not lack for material to attack this government on, even without a French villa or a helicopter ride to a remote island on the horizon.

Yet for many Canadians, especially the growing number who do not pay attention to what is occurring on Parliament Hill, their perspective could be summed up by declaring you have one job, Justin Trudeau: make the economy grow and in so doing, make things a little easier for me to pay the bills and feel hopeful about my kids’ future. Two years in, this fiscal update confirms the Prime Minister’s managing to do just that.

A former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau, John Delacourt is Vice President of Ensight.

Don Newman: A Good Day for Minister Morneau

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In Question Period today in the House of Commons, the questions were relentless. Why did Finance Minister Bill Morneau not place his considerable ‎wealth in a blind trust as every other wealthy cabinet minister has done in the past and is only doing it now?

And when Question Period ‎ended, the Commons went to a recorded vote. The vote was on a Conservative motion that said the Finance Minister was in a conflict of interest, because his family firm Morneau Shepell must have benefited from government policy while he still owned shares.

But Bill Morneau wasn’t in the House of Commons for any of that criticism. He was preparing to present his fall fiscal update when the financial markets closed at 4:00pm.

What did the Fiscal Update Announce?

And while he was waiting he must have been smiling. Because Morneau told the Commons that Canada’s fiscal outlook had improved by $8.5 billion, since his budget last March.

What’s more, the improved ‎fiscal position means more money for the middle class, and those working hard to join it.

The Canada Child Benefit will increase by $200 for a family with two children next July. In 2019, the year of the next federal election, they will get $500 more than they do now.

The small business tax, which was 15 per cent in 2015 at the time of the last election, will drop to 9 per cent in 2019. Oh yes, that is the year of the next election.

The Government has been criticized for running deficits of close to $30 Billion for the past two years. Well this year, the deficit fell from a projected $28.5 billion in the spring budget to a projected $19.9 billion.

Now the projection is that by the fiscal 2022-2023 the deficit will have shrunk to $12.5 Billion. And the important debt to GDP ratio will fall from 30.5 per cent to 28.5 per cent.

How will it play out?

It is a rosy forecast but how will it play out? Well there are some pitfalls.

As the economy improves and inflation looms the Bank of Canada will have to respond by raising interest rates. And as interest rates go up, the Government’s cost of borrowing will go up, and the deficit will start to climb just to service the debt.

Add to that the uncertainty of the NAFTA negotiations and the economic impact of cancelling the treaty would have, there are potential storm clouds hovering over the financial future.

But for now, it was a good day for Bill Morneau. Not only did the Liberals use their majority to easily defeat the conflict of interest motion, as the Minister himself said, “it is a very good fiscal update.”

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Ensight, a Member of the Order of Canada, and a life-member and past president of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

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)

Newman on NAFTA: Your Guide to What Happens Next if NAFTA Talks Fail

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Despite a charm offensive by Prime Minister Trudeau in Washington, President Trump is again signaling his opposition to NAFTA and his desire to terminate it. Our Don Newman explains what exactly will happen, if and when, the plug on NAFTA is pulled.

NAFTA – What Happens Next?

All may not be lost if the current NAFTA negotiations collapse, as there are at least two fallback positions for Canadians to consider. But if Donald Trump announces that he wants the United States out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, what exactly happens next?

Well the sun will still come up in the east the next morning. Under the United States Constitution, it is Congress, not the President, that has jurisdiction over trade and both the House of Representatives and the Senate jealously guard that authority.

That is why to abrogate any trade deal, the President has to give Congress six months notice that he wants to end it. And with NAFTA that will be a critical six months.

Canada, as well as Mexico‎, will then have to determine whether Trump really wants to end NAFTA or whether he just wants to put more pressure on both countries to cave into what they consider unreasonable American demands. This is a negotiating technique that works in real estate and licensing deals and Trump seems to believe it can work in negotiating international trade deals as well.

That, of course, remains to be seen. Mexico has said it will not bow to that kind of pressure, and will end any negotiations. The Canadian government hasn’t said what it would do.

NAFTA in 1987

The past might not be instructive either. At the critical moment in the 1987 negotiations on the Canada – U.S. Free Trade Agreement, Ottawa said the deal could not be completed without an independent system of expert panels to settle the trade disputes that would inevitably arise. The Americans backed down.

But in 1987, if Free Trade had not gone ahead, what was then the status quo would have been maintained. Now, of course, is different. If NAFTA disappears the whole network of supply chains, economies of economic scale and other forms of integration and investment would go with it. There is a lot more at stake than in 1987.

First Fallback Position – Saving Portions of NAFTA

With so much more at stake now than in 1987, Canada, and perhaps even Mexico, may be convinced to keep talking, and to try to save as much of NAFTA as possible working against a six month deadline.

If that is what happens, this is the first fallback position. It means Canadian companies and Associations will have to‎ quickly decide what is absolutely key to their success in the current NAFTA agreement, and what they could survive without.

That will then have to be quickly, forcefully and effectively conveyed to the Government.

But suppose negotiating stops. What happens then?

Second Fallback Position – Engaging US Congressional Committees

In Washington, the NAFTA ball lands in the court of two powerful Congressional Committees with the primary responsibility for trade deals: the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.

They will be the ones with the responsibility of unwinding the laws, rules and regulations in the United States that comprise the system created to facilitate NAFTA.

They will be the ones who will be subjected to tremendous pressure. Lobbyists representing Governors whose states will be particularly hard hit by NAFTA’s cancellation, ‎the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the auto industry, the agrifood industry and farmers organizations among others, will all pressure the Congressmen and Senators on those committees to save and protect the elements of the NAFTA package that favour their interests.

As well, other Senators and Congressmen who are not on the two committees, will be lobbying those that are, to protect industries or consumers in their districts that have benefited from NAFTA.

This is the second fallback position. This can also be an opportunity for Canadian companies and associations to try and preserve elements of NAFTA. Working with Congressman and Senators, and with likeminded American partners, this will be an opportunity to mount effective lobbying efforts in Washington.

It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over

So, although NAFTA could be in peril, as Yogi Berra said: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

And as the British slogan during the wartime blitz advised: “Keep calm and carry on.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Ensight, a Member of the Order of Canada, and a life-member and past president of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Newman on NAFTA: Canada’s Full Court Press in Washington and Why it May Not Be Enough

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Ensight’s Don Newman on how high the stakes are for Prime Minister Trudeau during the fourth round of NAFTA talks in Washington and why President Trump may just walk away

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is visiting Washington this week to meet with President Donald Trump and important members of the U.S. Congress.

Why this week? Well this is the week the negotiations for a renewed North American Free Trade Agreement could collapse. And Trudeau wants to be seen as doing everything possible to try and prevent that.

The fourth round of talks to revise the 25 year old agreement begin Wednesday in Washington. ‎This is the round where the Americans are expected to put their most contentious issues on the table.

These issues include:

Buy American / Hire American

The controversial demand that United States‎ companies have the right to bid on Canadian Government contracts, but government contracts in the United States are reserved for only local companies, under the Trump administration’s “Buy American. Hire American” plan.

Car Manufacturing

The demand that all cars manufactured in the three NAFTA countries have a minimum of fifty per cent of their content originate in the United States. Present NAFTA content rules require that sixty-two point five per cent of a car must come from any of Canada, the U.S. or Mexico to pass duty free among the three countries. Raising the content rules as proposed by the Americans would mean that NAFTA countries content would be over eighty per cent, with the overwhelming amount of that content American.

Dispute Settlement

And the proposals for a changed dispute settlement arrangement. The Americans say the present method of settling disputes by independent panels whose members are drawn from all three countries is unfair to the U.S. They want U.S. Trade law, courts and tribunals to adjudicate disputes.

Both Canada and Mexico have said this proposal is a deal breaker that will kill NAFTA. And seeing the way U.S. Trade tribunals are hammering Canada in the Bombardier – Boeing dispute and on Canadian Softwood lumber exports, the resolve to say an emphatic “NO” to putting those same arrangements in NAFTA will only be strengthened. But saying “no” to these proposal will give President Trump the opening he is looking for.

During the election campaign last year Trump said he would either reform NAFTA or kill it. Many people have thought killing it is his real objective. Rejection by Canada or Mexico of the one-sided U.S. proposals put forward this week‎ would give him that opportunity. This week’s visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a last ditch effort to prevent that from happening. It is unlikely to be enough.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Ensight, a Member of the Order of Canada, and a life-member and past president of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Lessons on losing: What the NDP can learn from the 2011 Liberals: Mackenzie

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The recent NDP leadership ended decisively, with a first-ballot win for Brampton MPP Jagmeet Singh. Without a seat in the House of Commons of his own, Singh expects (unless an opportune by-election crops up) to be on the campaign hustings on his own for the next two years straight.

He’s an interesting — and possibly risky — choice for the NDP: a federal outsider without provincial NDP government experience, someone who is not a current federal caucus member. But those aren’t really the things New Democrats need to worry about right now.

The larger challenge for the NDP is one of identity — of figuring out who they are and what they stand for. The party gambled in the 2015 campaign on outflanking the Liberals through a balanced budget pledge. That shift in direction left many Canadians uncertain about what a ideologically flexible NDP might do next.

For some lessons on how this self-evaluation process might look, it’s worth taking a look back to 2011, when the Liberals — who also had just experienced a fall from Official Opposition to third party status — initiated a very deliberate process of ‘rebuilding’ their party.

This rebuilding project was a pragmatic process of evaluation — not an exercise in nostalgia. Liberals attended roundtables where they told one another why they were Liberals — what the Liberals should stand for, what policies they should champion, what would convince everyday Canadians that Liberals were a vibrant political movement worth considering again.

In Justin Trudeau’s book Common Ground, he describes his key advisers sitting around a campfire and talking about the possibility that the Liberal party was a spent political force. They talked about how Preston Manning and Stockwell Day created new parties with new names and the same old MPs. (Who knows what that would have looked like? The Progressive Party? The Liberal Democrats?)

Reminder: Before the 2015 election, the NDP had the largest caucus in its history. The election pulled the rug out from under them. In Opposition, New Democrats talked seriously about being ready to govern and pointed to the experience of provincial NDP governments by way of example. Defeat robbed the party of its raison d’être.

Many New Democrats haven’t understood that loss yet for what it was. Many Canadians don’t know now what distinguishes the NDP from the Liberal party, what makes New Democrats more qualified than the Liberals to move forward progressive ideas.

Parliament won’t help. Tom Mulcair made a reputation for himself as Stephen Harper’s most savage opponent in the Commons. The NDP’s new leader may not even make it to question period for another two years. In the meantime, Singh has tapped former leadership rival Guy Caron to lead his caucus day-to-day.

Singh has made some moves to distinguish himself from his rivals and, by extension, from the Liberals — such as his pitch to decriminalize personal recreational drug use. But he still has a lot to lose in 2019 and much ground to make up. Prime Minister Trudeau continues to be seen as a symbol of progressivism around the world.

The NDP supporters who voted strategically in 2015 to defeat the Harper Conservatives may be alarmed by recent polling showing a rise in support for the Conservatives — and decide to park their votes with the Liberals for safekeeping. New Democrats likely will be playing defence in certain regions they currently hold, which may draw their attention and resources away from taking Liberal-held seats in urban, multicultural areas.

The only virtue in defeat is the opportunity to become better. Every party eventually needs to restore itself — but the process typically involves some serious self-interrogation. New Democrats need to ask themselves what they can offer that no other party can.

Singh has two years on the outside now, time he can put to good use in rebuilding the party. And being an outsider can have benefits. Singh likes to compare himself to Jack Layton. It took Layton three elections to be considered. Like Layton, Singh can afford to be patient.

But a party leader who leads from the outside runs a risk. The next election will be an evaluation of what Trudeau has done with power. Without an actual third-party leader there to hold Trudeau to account in the House of Commons, Singh’s placeholder Parliamentary caucus representative is going to see his lunch eaten daily by Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer.

Good luck, Jagmeet Singh. The path from third place to first is seldom easy to follow.

(As published in iPolitics on October 8, 2017)