Cheers and jeers for 2017: Star columnists weigh in on underrated and overrated politicians and political plays

Cheers and jeers for 2017: Star columnists weigh in on underrated and overrated politicians and political plays

Jaime Watt

Our Politics Page columnists select politicians worthy of praise for their work this past year, some who need to up their game, and who to keep an eye on in 2018.

The page will take a break for the holidays and return on Jan. 14.

Most underrated politician of 2017

Gooch: Premier Kathleen Wynne. At this moment Wynne is working with a personal approval rating below 20 per cent. It doesn’t get any more underrated than that. I remember arriving at the Ontario Liberal Party leadership convention in 2013 as a Sandra Pupatello delegate. Being from Windsor, Pupatello was my introduction to strong women advocates in Canadian politics. I came prepared with buttons that read “Congratulations Madame Premier.”

It was thrilling to stand on the Maple Leaf Gardens floor knowing that our two strongest candidates were women, and no matter the outcome of the convention, we were going to make history by selecting Ontario’s first woman as Premier. Wynne subsequently united the party, ran a successful campaign in 2014 and went to work delivering on the vision she laid out for the province, which she clearly communicated through public mandate letters with her ministers.

She made time in 2017 to travel the province, braving difficult conversations with Ontarians at town hall events. I’ve only known Wynne to be a principled and sincere leader. She is a titan in Canadian politics. As underrated as she is at the close of this year, I think we will see her catch her stride campaigning in 2018.

Sears: Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. Completing her second year in the suicide chair of any cabinet, Bennett gets too little credit for the achievements of the Trudeau government in building a genuine program of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. It is always tempting to mutter dismissively, “Problems everywhere still!” instead of marking what progress has been made. More agreements have been signed, more stupid anti-First Nations legal actions by the federal government cancelled, and more money flowed for First Nations health and education than in any time past. The naming of an impressively strong National Reconciliation Council last week, caps a year of real progress.

Not so good: the Missing and Murdered Inquiry remains wobbly, and a reset button may yet need to be hit.

Watt: B.C. Premier John Horgan brought the New Democratic Party back to power in the province for the first time since 2001. Horgan did an impressive job fighting former premier Christy Clark, a formidable politician, to a draw in the most recent election. Then he adeptly formed a coalition with the Green Party, while conceding little of his party’s agenda.

In government, Horgan has so far proven to be similarly adept. The Green Party has bent to his will on a number of issues, and the Liberals have not found areas of weakness on which to attack his government. Horgan is quietly effective, and he promises to be an important player on the national scene, even as the federal NDP struggles.

Most overrated politician of 2017

Gooch: Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. One of my favourite quotes to apply to political organization is, “The only reward for good work is more work.” Singh ran a fantastic leadership campaign in 2017. So good, that the bar is raised for how he delivers on his promise to grow NDP membership to build a strong campaign in 2019. Examining his record as a former member of provincial parliament in Ontario, aside from a friendly personal demeanour, I have difficulty understanding the fanfare.

I think it’s a mistake for Singh to prolong finding a seat in the House. The freedom to travel Canada and build his following is attractive, but the longer he waits, the more action he misses in Ottawa. He has amassed a loyal and passionate following over the course of 2017, an army of excellent organizers for the issues they care about. But retweets don’t equal votes. Singh’s next challenge is harnessing that energy to build and unite his party over the next two years.

Sears: Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre: Every Parliament produces at least one young blowhard politician, who is always loud, always certain, and frequently wrong. They usually grow up or get prematurely retired. In this case, surprisingly, the learning curve has been virtually flat over a decade and he has survived.

Poilievre is a good stuntman always ready with an angry sound bite, so he usually wins showdowns with less adept or self-promotional opponents. He has toned down his rent-a-rant in Opposition, and sometimes appears to be trying to demonstrate some gravitas. This year, though, he hit a new low this with his harassment and character attacks on Bill Morneau. Morneau’s missteps, misjudgments and simply bad decisions have been painful to watch. Attacking the man’s character and personal integrity came to close to Trump-style smears for even some of his own caucus colleagues.

Watt: Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew has not demonstrated nearly the same proficiency as Horgan. A darling of left-wing activists in the West and something of a media star before entering politics, Kinew was elected leader of the Manitoba NDP in September, following the party’s crushing election defeat by the PCs. Kinew was expected to be the kind of exciting leader the party needed to revive itself.

Instead, he has faced a number of issues that have undermined confidence in his abilities. Soon after his election, it emerged that he had been charged both with domestic assault and drunk driving, throwing the NDP off-kilter. His ham-fisted response included denial and silence before he acknowledged the challenges. The NDP under his leadership has continued to struggle to find its footing.

The best political play of the year

Gooch: Montreal mayoral race. Nobody expected it and she was told it couldn’t be done. Yet, Valérie Plante stands today as the mayor of Montreal. She is the first woman in the 375-year history of the municipality to hold the post. It was a stunning upset, and she proved the benefit of a strong ground game by securing 51 per cent of the vote. Going up against an incumbent is an uphill battle that I’m sure most political veterans advised against. But she came with energy, determination, and a plan that Montreal voters connected with.

Sears: The Barton Panel. The Trudeau government’s decision to name a high-level, blue-ribbon panel of federal economic advisers is neither novel nor often of much political value beyond announcement day. The difference this time was, first, the creative choice of panel head in Dominic Barton — among the most respected management consultants in the world, and the global Managing Partner of McKinsey — and in the creative selection of panel members.

Even more impressive has been the way in which the panel has performed: issuing its work in carefully calibrated chunks, ensuring they have been politically battle-tested, and consulting a wide range of stakeholders, before release. And crucially, defending its sometimes surprisingly bold proposals without simply appearing to be paid government sycophants.

Watt: Hands down, former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney’s impressive moves over the last year have been fascinating to watch. Kenney, seeing potentially years of being in opposition at the federal level, resigned his seat in the House of Commons to run for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, a party that was a spent force in the province. Kenney ran with the express promise to pack up the party and merge it with the upstart, right-wing Wildrose party to offer a united conservative alternative to Rachel Notley’s NDP government.

Many were skeptical that the Ottawa-centric Kenney would have enough credibility to take over a party that had previously been resistant to a merger. But Kenney won the leadership resoundingly, and forced a merger. Following the merger, many speculated he would not be able to take the leadership of the United Conservative Party as easily, but he did. Kenney has won two leaderships in the last year and has united a fractured conservative movement. In doing so, he has become the favourite to become premier of Alberta following the 2019 general election.

The worst political play of the year

Gooch: Quebec Niqab Ban. The passing of Bill 62, a law that made it illegal for public services in the province of Quebec to be received by people wearing face coverings was a sad moment in Canadian politics. It was alarming to see a Canadian government targeting a small group of already marginalized women by refusing much needed services. This dangerous political move played on a popular and misguided fear and hatred among Quebecers. This is a time when we need to be combating Islamophobia, not further entrenching it in Canadian policy. I was disappointed to see so few federal representatives speaking out passionately against it, including the prime minister.

Sears: Tax “reform.” If you want to survive one of the most risky ventures in politics — messing with the tax system — you better remember three things: keep it simple, bulletproof your political narrative for change, and ensure you have at least some of those most likely to be impacted by the changes on board in advance. The Trudeau government failed on all three in its badly botched summer tax ‘reform’ campaign.

The changes were impossible for any reasonable person to understand, were defended by attacking tax ‘cheaters’ among farmers, doctors and hair salon owners, and thus successfully incited a broad counterattack. A stunning self-inflicted wound.

Watt: Justice Richard Wagner, recently appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, made a major error this summer when he declined the applications of four LGBTQ advocacy groups for intervener status in a case against the law school at Trinity Western University, a private Christian school in B.C. The case stems from the fact that Trinity Western requires students to sign a code of conduct limiting sexual intimacy to heterosexual marriage, a stance many LGBTQ groups find egregious and a reason to deny Trinity Western status as an accredited law school in Canada.

Wagner, who said that LGBTQ groups were adequately represented in the case, declined to allow them as intervenors, leading to a broad outcry on social media. The decision was later reversed by then-Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.

Wagner was jockeying at the time to be named Supreme Court Chief Justice and the issue played badly with a socially conscious government. In spite of his later success in being named as Chief Justice, Wagner’s decision was ill-made.

The most likely to shine in 2018

Gooch: Black women in politics. In 2018, expect to see more Black women running, organizing and engaging in Canadian politics. Canada will be better for it, and political parties will be smart to empower and trust these women as they bring their talents to the political sphere. One race worth watching will be Leisa Washington in Whitby. The political rookie was just nominated as the Liberal candidate to go up against PC incumbent Lorne Coe.

“Men didn’t want to work with me at first. They were afraid of the unknown. ‘Will she outshine me?’ ” Washington shared, in describing her work as a trail-blazing WNBA and NBA sports agent. She has a tough race ahead of her, but she seems up for the challenge. I look forward to seeing Washington and more Black Canadian women shining in political spaces in 2018.

Sears: Jagmeet Singh. As several pundits observed in predicting his victory at the close of the underwhelming NDP leadership contest, the party’s biggest challenge these days is getting noticed, adding that Singh has never walked into a room without becoming the instant centre of attention.

His launch has been far from flawless, but his skills as a communicator, a conciliator and skilled political organizer will emerge more clearly in the New Year. Some pundits have whispered about his ‘ethnicity’ challenges, especially in Quebec. Like Obama, Singh does not need to cite his credentials as an authentic advocate of minorities — including Francophone Quebecers, refugees, and the powerless — they are unavoidably in front of your eyes whenever he speaks. New Democrats are slow to love a new leader. It took Jack Layton several years to achieve his incredible plateau of affection and success. Singh is the first since Ed Broadbent to have moved so quickly into the party’s affections.

Watt: Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has been a very effective advocate for Canada. Freeland has taken a low-key approach to the NAFTA negotiations, but has emerged as a key player in the government. As trade negotiations heat up, Freeland will become even more prominent on the domestic front. Deeply knowledgeable on the issues, Freeland will continue to demonstrate why she is one of this government’s most trusted ministers. She’s a strong communicator and one to watch moving forward.

Tiffany Gooch is a political strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight, secretary of the Ontario Liberal Party Executive Council, and an advocate for increased cultural and gender diversity in Canadian politics. Robin V. Sears, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, was an NDP strategist for 20 years. Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(As published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, December 17, 2017)