The Ensight team provides valuable insights and analysis on important issues in Ottawa and the decision makers behind them.

Four Reasons Not to Forget About Conservatives: A Post Manning Networking Conference Update

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Conservatives from across the country gathered in Ottawa last weekend to attend the 10th annual Manning Networking Conference. This is the brainchild of former Reform Leader Preston Manning and is billed as a discussion around the Conservative Movement in Canada.
Now it would be easy to think that the Conservative Party wields no real power in a Liberal majority government and in the short term, you might not even be wrong. But ultimately the Conservatives will take power back, maybe not in 2019 or even 2023, but history shows us that Canadians will eventually tire of one government in favour of a new one.

The Conservative movement is at a critical juncture and there is a growing realization that it needs to grow and adapt to remain competitive against the Liberals, who Conservatives had hoped had been effectively neutralized in 2011 but were oh so wrong, as it turns out.

Here are four themes from last week’s Manning Conference that could impact your organization’s goals:

1- All Ontario PC talk, all the time: You couldn’t have a single discussion with anyone without being asked who you supported in the Ontario Progressive Conservative Leadership race. In fact, all three candidates (Elliot, Mulroney and Ford) were given stage time where they were interviewed by Anthony Furey. Provincial battles are often seen as a litmus test for federal ones and if you haven’t already, cultivating relationships with the Ontario PC’s, both elected, nominated and staff, would just be prudent. Hedge your bets and although the PCs in Ontario have an incredible knack for self-destruction, it’s too early to count them out.

2- New Ideas: The theme this year at Manning was around new ideas for a new generation and there is a feeling that the movement/party must grow and attract a new demographic. In fact, pollster David Coletto presented data that showed that millennials could vote Conservative, but only if the party could address issues they cared about like immigration and the environment. If your organization has a new idea that requires time to mature and the support of a political party, you are pushing on an open door right now and the time is now to begin seeding ideas.

3- Carbon Tax: There is violent opposition to a carbon tax in conservative circles, but Preston himself made an impassioned plea that it’s not enough for Conservatives to be opposed to a carbon tax, we must figure out and sell an alternative conservative vision for the environment. This is an opportunity for organizations and associations in this space; how can you help the Conservatives create this new vison?

4- Trans Mountain Pipeline: There was much discussion around the frustration with BC and the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Jason Kenney, now Alberta’s United Conservative Party Leader, gave a barn burning speech on the importance of Canada’s natural resources and making it a moral issue about how Alberta can support the rest of the Canada through equalization but only if projects are approved. In this instance any organizations with interests in natural resource projects would be well served by working to ensure that they have conservative allies, because as we know, timelines for these projects can eclipse government life cycles.

These are all important discussions taking place now in the Conservative movement that will contribute to the Conservative Party’s 2018 Policy Convention in Halifax set for August.

It goes without saying that you need a strong relationship with the current Liberal government, but while the Conservative party may be bruised and battered, it is rebuilding, and organizations would be well served to not forgot about Conservatives in the pursuit of their public affairs goals.

Toronto police culture still harms LGBTQ community: Watt

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Last week, Toronto celebrated an inauspicious occasion: the 37th anniversary of Operation Soap.

Better known as the Toronto bathhouse raids, Operation Soap saw dozens of Toronto police officers storm four bathhouses and arrest more than 250 gay and bisexual men on a variety of humiliating charges. Lives were changed forever — jobs lost, reputations destroyed, personal relationships left in tatters, lives taken by suicide.

The next night, thousands of LGBTQ Torontonians took to the streets with the message that enough was enough; stunning the city with the ferocity of their protests.

It marked the beginning of change between the LGBTQ community and governments at all levels. Finally, officials began to understand the damage they had inflicted on often vulnerable and marginalized people.

Since that time, there have been all kinds of legislative accomplishments and relationships between LGBTQ people and governments have grown close, if not downright cozy.

Today, it is difficult for many to truly understand the symbolic importance of the Gay Village. Church and Wellesley seems more like a secondary traffic artery, spattered with no-name pharmacies, second-rate fast-food restaurants and unassuming bars — at least from the outside.

But the truth is that this corner has been a home to thousands of Canadians.

It can be profoundly isolating to be a member of the LGBTQ community. To grow up understanding oneself to be “different” is an experience that many of us struggle to shake even well into adulthood.

Toronto’s Gay Village has been a sanctuary, a home, a place to embrace just who you are.

More than one public official has questioned why gay spaces or gay celebrations, such as Toronto Pride, still need to exist when extensive regulatory and legislative changes have been made to protect LGBTQ Canadians.

The last several months in Toronto have provided the answer.

For many years, segments of the LGBTQ community have protested their experiences with police. Advocates have argued that members of the trans community and people of colour continue to be treated differently than cisgender and white members of the LGBTQ community.

They argue these same segments of our community have been silenced, ignored and abused by institutional biases.

This public angst threatens to disrupt the relative harmony many felt had developed between the LGBTQ community and the Toronto police in the decades since the bathhouse raids.

Public battles, like the Black Lives Matters protest at Pride Toronto 2016 and the subsequent banning of the police from participation in the Pride Parade, fractured opinions of the LGBTQ community.

While much progress has been made, it has become abundantly clear that many challenges remain in the way the Toronto Police interact with the LGBTQ community.

Advocates have always had a point, and statistics have backed them up. There have been long-standing issues, including a number of unsolved missing persons cases, a propensity for police to arrest vulnerable people in the community, and sporadic efforts at crackdowns. This has painted a negative picture about the relationship between the police and a community.

Three recent cases have put a starkly human face on these issues.

In late November, 22-year-old Tess Richey disappeared after a night out at Church and Wellesley. Police responded with an investigation, but failed to uncover anything until Richey’s mother found her daughter’s body at a construction site mere metres from where she was last seen. Police called the incident a “misadventure” for several days. Last week, second-degree murder charges were laid.

Alloura Wells, a missing trans woman, was found dead on Aug. 5 of 2016. Police failed to identify Wells until November 2017, when her father went to the media. When he tried to report her missing at a Toronto police station, he said he was told that due to her past history, she was not considered high priority. Instead, he was given a non-emergency line to contact.

But the most infamous case is that of alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur. Activists and advocates have been warning that older gay men seemed to be disappearing for years now. Last summer, a poster circulated with the pictures of the missing men, warning of a potential serial killer.

Toronto police responded by denying that a serial killer existed. In a move that revealed the community’s distrust of the police, a neighbourhood association organized to provide walks home to allow for a measure of safety for those who felt threatened.

Months later, the community was proved right. McArthur has been charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder. It is alleged he had been targeting gay men for years, killing at least five. The number of charges seem likely to increase as the investigation continues.

That police denied the existence of a threat when one so plainly existed undermines their mission to provide support for a community that is so often the target of violence, harassment and discrimination.

I do not believe there is malicious intent by Toronto Police. Rather, the challenge lies in the nature and characteristics of the problem. When police raided the bath houses many years ago, the laws and regulations which were at the essence of the problem could be pointed to, identified and fixed.

Today’s challenge is actually more daunting. The Toronto Police Service must reflect on how to change a culture and how to protect a community that so desperately needs that protection.

A community of vulnerable people depend on it. And all of us must speak out and acknowledge that change needs to occur.

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

(As published in The Toronto Star on February 11, 2018)

Post-scandal PCs poised for a dramatic revival: Watt

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“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain once said after an overeager newspaper prematurely posted his obituary following an illness.

The same might be said of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.

For months now, the fortunes of the Ontario Liberals have been in the doldrums. Despite thoughtful efforts by both her government and campaign team to turn things around, the rate of improvement has been discouragingly slow.

So, of course, with the tragic and macabre scene that was Patrick Brown’s resignation, predictions began to emerge that it was the trouble for the Tories, and that Bill Clinton wouldn’t be the only political comeback kid.

Make no mistake — the shocking fall of Brown was a spectacle, but it was not one that will leave lasting damage on the Ontario PCs, as much as many observers might wish it were so.

In fact, it may leave the party in a stronger position than it was just two short weeks ago.

While Brown had proven to be politically adept, and had managed to stay ahead of a number of curveballs thrown at him by the premier, he also struggled to connect to voters. Something about him failed to resonate with Ontarians, though he did appear poised to sail to victory in spite of it.

What is also clear now is that Brown had a significant number of skeletons in his closet that could have easily emerged during an election campaign, dashing any hope of a PC government.

The quick removal of Brown by the party apparatus, along with a caucus that was all-too-happy to throw Brown overboard at the first sign of trouble, demonstrated that the party never truly united behind him following his come-from-nowhere win.

But the party remains surprisingly strong. Tens of thousands of memberships, millions of dollars more than the Ontario Liberals, and a slate of impressive candidates across the province indicate the Tories remain a political presence to be reckoned with.

Perhaps most importantly, the biggest potential pitfall that the party faces has thus far been avoided.

It’s no secret that Progressive Conservatives are prone to infighting and petty internal politics. So, it was fair to assume the vacuum of leadership mere months before an election would create a drama worthy of Shakespeare.

But it hasn’t happened. Instead, a leadership election is being planned that from the outside appears remarkably orderly. While caucus did make a brief attempt to install its own leader without the benefit of an election, that ill-advised move was promptly overturned by the party executive, which organized a speedy leadership that will conclude on March 10.

The astute move ensures the party’s grassroots members will be engaged and mobilized in advance of an election, rather than demoralized and disheartened.

In addition, a PC leadership race with a choice of candidates that includes Doug Ford, Christine Elliott, Caroline Mulroney and Rod Phillips promises to hoover up media coverage.

Heading into an election, a government’s best weapon is its ability to set the agenda. The PC leadership race will likely scuttle that possibility as it demands the attention of the Queen’s Park media gallery. Ford, in particular, is fascinating to the media and his ability to attract attention will be to the detriment of the Ontario Liberals.

Look at just last week. While the Liberals were trying to talk about the minimum wage hike, all that Ontario politicos were discussing was the optics of Doug Ford announcing his campaign for leadership from his mother’s basement.

Petty and unimportant? Certainly. But a column is a column, and it was all Ontario voters were reading about.

More than that, the slate of leadership candidates is impressive. Elliott, Mulroney, Phillips and potential caucus candidate Todd Smith are all effective communicators with impressive credentials. All are capable of leadership and, most would agree, would more naturally fit the profile of premier than Brown.

Ford, for all of his faults, is a candidate who may just catch fire. The man, as noted, is an impressive communicator who intuitively knows how to get attention — and how to speak to the common person. People rewrite history now, but he came shockingly close to capturing the mayoralty of Toronto in a truncated campaign.

Who could have predicted that the Ontario PCs would manage to take what seemed initially like a disastrous situation and turn it into an opportunity?

For a party that is more used to off-the-rails political moves, this is both a change of fortunes and an exciting time. But they’re not out of the woods just yet.

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

(As published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, February 4, 2018)

Newman on NAFTA (And More): Events Dear Boy, Events

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Those unforeseen occurrences that suddenly demand immediate attention. That is how former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan ‎summed up his most difficult challenges as he was leaving office in 1963.

Fifty-five years later another Prime Minister in a different country might well be pondering the wisdom of those words.

This past week Justin Trudeau has had come into focus two problems that will bedevil him from now until the next election in 2019, and perhaps beyond. One is to some degree out of his hands. The other is directly in his control.

The first, of course is NAFTA. Cautious optimism in Montreal last weekend that negotiations between Canada, the United States and Mexico were finally getting somewhere came to a crashing halt ‎on Monday, when U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer rejected Canadian counterproposals on automobile content rules of origin.

Many people had believed that the Montreal talks might be the last round of negotiations before the United States stopped the meetings and U.S. President Donald Trump made good on his threat to give notice to pull out of NAFTA‎.

At least now there will be two more negotiating rounds before that happens. One at the end of this month in Mexico, and another in March in the U.S.

However, it is now even more certain that what the Canadian Government has feared since last October is indeed true. If there is to be a continuation of NAFTA it will be a radically altered agreement heavily slanted towards the United States. Ottawa will have to decide if there is still enough benefit to Canada to re-sign, or to cut and run.

One place we might run is to a free trade agreement with China. But so far that idea isn’t going very well either. One of the Chinese requirements for a trade deal has been increased pipeline capacity from the Oil Sands of Alberta to Canada’s west coast.

That was one of the factors, although not the only one, in Ottawa’s approval of the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline from Alberta to the lower mainland in British Columbia.

New pipelines have always been a difficult tightrope for the Trudeau Government to walk. This past week it became even more difficult.

The New Democrats formed a minority government in B.C. last‎ summer. A minority propped up by three members of the Green Party. The NDP and the Greens are opposed to expansion of Trans Mountain. They were also opposed to a giant hydro project in B.C. called the Site C dam.

The dam falls under provincial jurisdiction. The NDP government of Premier John Horgan could have cancelled it, but the NDP risked the wrath and losing the support of the Greens by announcing that the project was so far along it could not be cancelled. The Government could have fallen and an election called. But the Greens did not abandon ‎the NDP.

It is important to know that background to understand what happened this week. Premier Horgan announced that the B.C. Government would do everything it can to stop the Trans Mountain expansion — even though the constitutional power to approve pipelines lies with the federal government, not the provinces.

In other words, he will try to stop a pipeline he has no power to stop, after giving the go-ahead to the Site C dam which he could have stopped‎. Coalition politics can be confusing. To save his Government Horgan has triggered not just a confrontation with Ottawa, he is also into a pitched war with the Government of Alberta, for whom an oil sands pipeline to tide water on the West Coast is a matter of economic life and death.

But it is not confusing for Justin Trudeau. He has no alternative but to push the federal authority to have the Trans-Mountain expansion built. To do otherwise would be an abdication of the Constitution‎, a breakdown of how the country works.

He has to do it in the face of provincial opposition and protests, in the context of legal challenges and potential civil disobedience. He has to do it in the face of electoral setbacks and disruption and fissures with in his own party.

Not only will the Liberal Government be tested. The opposition parties will have to clearly state their positions as well. With less than two years until the next federal election we can now see at least two of the major issues: Pipelines and the environment, and NAFTA and our relationship with the Americans.

And they were brought into clarity this past week’s events.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Ensight and Navigator Limited, a Member of the Order of Canada, Chairman of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

This year a critical one for all federal parties: Watt

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As hard as it is to believe, we’re not that far away from another federal election.

As politicians arrive back in Ottawa and the House of Commons resumes sitting on Monday, the 2019 election will be on their minds.

Last year was, comparatively speaking, a tough one for the governing Liberals. While they maintained a comfortable lead in many opinion polls, their numbers were down from the previous year. And so they know that 2018 will be a critical year.

The Liberals have a number of things going for them. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is an incredibly popular leader — a global superstar even — who connects with young Canadians like no politician in Canada in recent memory. The economy is growing, job numbers are strong, interest rates low and the Canadian dollar stable. And, at the time of the writing of this column, NAFTA was still intact.

At the same time, the Liberals face some challenges. The limousine liberal critique is starting to hold. They have failed to deliver on promises made to Canadians, including electoral reform and restoring home mail delivery to everyone. In December, the CBC reported that the Liberal government had passed only half the number of the bills the previous Conservative government did by the same point in its mandate.

So, what do the Liberals need to do to have a successful 2018? Simply put, they need to deliver — on legalizing marijuana and on getting money out the door and shovels in the ground on significant pieces of infrastructure. They need make progress on campaign promises, such as eliminating the need for boil-water advisories on First Nations reserves.

In addition, they need to strengthen their ability to manage issues — for instance, to limit stories about Trudeau’s visit to the Aga Khan’s personal island, and about offshore accounts held by wealthy Canadians, and settlements with former Guantanamo Bay detainees.

The Liberals need to focus on their strengths.

The Conservatives have a different priority list, one that looks harder to execute. The party has yet to introduce leader Andrew Scheer to Canadians.

Scheer’s attacks on the prime minister are not working. Trudeau was elected in 2015 largely because he was not Stephen Harper, but a majority of Canadians have wound up liking what they got when they voted for Trudeau.

Scheer needs to focus on developing an exciting piece of policy, a policy that will create a debate, a wedge issue that will increase Scheer’s relevance. Think a flat tax or an increase in the GST alongside a significant income tax reduction.

Sheer needs to move away from simply criticizing Liberal policy and begin to find a way to differentiate himself.

We know that Conservatives connect with Canadians when they talk about lower taxes, family-friendly policies and even a pragmatic but fiscally responsible plan for the environment.

Meanwhile, the NDP, whose leader is without a seat in the House of Commons, is in an unorthodox position. The party needs to find a way to capitalize on this.

With the Liberals currently occupying a significant segment of traditional NDP policy territory, the NDP needs to decide how far left it can go without risking what support it gets from centrist voters.

The NDP should attempt to capitalize on what it sees as the failings of the Liberals, including climate change targets that mirror those of the Harper era, the continued existence of boil-water advisories on reserves, the lack of a national daycare strategy, and the shortage of affordable housing and transportation in urban centres.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has the luxury of travelling the country without worrying about being in the Commons, should spend the next year in major cities and small towns, telling people how he will make life better for them. When a national leader comes to town, the local media follows. Without a seat in the Commons, this is the best way for him to make an impact.

He needs to appoint someone in Ottawa to be a strong presence in the Commons, someone who can find tactical ways to keep the NDP in the national conversation on a day in, day out basis. This is a very challenging task for a third party.

The fact that Trudeau is both a popular and divisive figure makes for an interesting time in Canadian politics.

While he is the odds-on favourite to win in 2019, a successful 2018 for either opposition party could change that. As we saw on Wednesday night at Queen’s Park, anything can happen in politics.

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

(As published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, January 28, 2018)

A new set of rules needed for reporting and preventing sexual abuse in politics: Gooch

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This was a big week in Canadian politics. As allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct emerged in news reports we saw two provincial party leaders and a federal cabinet minister resign at rapid speed.

A debate quickly unfolded about what type of behaviour is acceptable from political leaders and the process through which allegations should be investigated.

We need to remember that this isn’t simply about plucking a few bad apples. This is a conversation about transforming a culture in political organization designed to protect those in power, and silence those without it.

The women who are choosing to come forward publicly are disrupting a power structure that needs disruption. They are brave and should be believed and supported while investigations take place.

When we discuss sexual harassment and assault prevention supports in politics we also need to consider the grey areas:

  • The unelected power broker who glides untouched through political spheres preying on young volunteers at fundraisers, conferences, and events.
  • The long-time senior staffer who often makes offensive jokes and comments that everyone tolerates and has grown to ignore.
  • The junior staffer who gives unwanted sexual attention to volunteers or stakeholders unnoticed and unchecked.

The spaces through which political operatives and volunteers navigate are intertwined. Each political institution aims to claim ownership only over their own jurisdiction, and this does a disservice to the staff and volunteers involved.

We need streamlined processes and better clarity in the supports offered to victims of harassment and assault in political spheres that close these gaps.

An added layer here is the complexity of political relationships. In weighing the decision to report sexual harassment it can be a struggle to know who to trust and whether they will react in your best interest.

People get involved in politics for many reasons, there are many passionate political staff and volunteers who have entered the political arena excited to make meaningful change. It is a devastating experience to enter this space and face mistreatment while trying to carry out important work.

I think often of the positive contributions to Canadians that are lost as women and men chose to leave politics because it was too painful to see their abuser carry on without repercussion.

The silencing comes in many flavours. In some cases it is as simple as friends downplaying the severity of the harassment. In others, it’s mentors telling you to toughen up if you want to make it in politics.

The game is changing and we need to set new rules.

I am particularly interested in the intergenerational aspect of this discussion as it unfolds. Older women, who have needed to navigate these spaces for years without the supports we are currently contemplating, are powerful allies in the success of this shift.

This is a discussion that requires careful and earnest consultation, consultation that very few established political institutions have been successful at carrying out.

As the 2018 provincial and municipal campaign seasons kick off, there should be well-consulted central and local campaign policies and procedures that are ingrained in the operations of all parties.

Candidates, managers, staff, and volunteers alike have a responsibility to ensure campaign offices and events are safe spaces for everyone involved.

As volunteers join campaigns their training should include these policies. For those who choose to report, processes should be clear and points of contact should be approachable and compassionate.

An organization to watch in the coming months is the Young Women’s Leadership Network led by Arezoo Najibzadeh and Yasmin Rajabi. In the absence of co-ordinated multi-partisan, and even non-partisan leadership and action on the issue, they are currently preparing a sexual violence support kit for political campaigns.

In the process of supporting those who are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence, the Young Women’s Leadership Network intends to consult with survivors, community groups, and experts to ensure plans are reflective of the variety of experiences faced by young women in politics.

This is difficult and exhausting work. I commend these young women for refusing to accept the status quo and dedicating their attention and energy to making this fundamental shift in Canadian political culture.

I hope that with this momentum we will see more women, particularly young women and women of colour, bringing their talents to Canadian politics at all levels, and I hope we will all see it as our job to help facilitate safer spaces.

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.

(As published in The Toronto Star and Metro News Canada on Sunday, January 28, 2018)

The Insiders: Sexual misconduct and Canadian politics

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(To listen to The Insiders Panel — Click Here)

At the end of an unprecedented in Canadian politics, we asked Insiders Jaime Watt, Kathleen Monk and David Herle to join us.

On what’s next for the Ontario PC party:

Jaime Watt: “Someone called it a speed bump, I don’t think it’s a speed bump, I think it’s much more serious than that when all the plans that you’ve got go out the window, and you’ve got to start over again… You’ve got to figure out who your leader is going to be and how you’re actually going to run that campaign. But on the other hand, there is a campaign plan in place, money’s been raised, candidates recruited, so leading that campaign might be attractive to somebody. Instead of spending years in the wilderness, someone could come in, take over, and have a campaign that’s a bit like chicken noodle soup – just add hot water and stir, and off they go.”

David Herle: “It creates a lot of uncertainty for the other parties. We don’t know who the leader of the Progressive Conservatives is going to be in the election. We don’t 100 per cent know if their going to stick with their platform… There were a number of items in there that were quite controversial inside the party that were Mr. Brown’s personal stamp on the platform, so there’s a lot of uncertainty. On the other side is frankly Brown was a weak leader, and a weak candidate, and I was looking forward to running a campaign against him, and the odds are quite high that they’ll choose someone who’s more effective.”

Kathleen Monk: “We know that the Conservative party will be in chaos, likely for the next several weeks, if not months, and more than that the party might have been complicit in knowing about allegations of sexual harassment against their leader and not addressing them. And so, for the New Democrats, what do they have to do? They have to be the vehicle for change.”

On the return of Parliament next week:

DH: “I think this spring is likely to be an awful lot about the economy, especially in the context of an attempt to abrogate NAFTA from the Trump administration. You know, from the Liberal perspective, they have worked awfully hard on building networks in the United States and managing this as well as it could be managed, but when you get into an actual intent to abrogate, you’re into potential economic-crisis territory, and so, I think for the government the major challenge is going to be to be seen on top of, and managing, what could be a crisis economic situation at any point.”

KM: “Jagmeet Singh really needs to get known to Canadians and out there on big issues that are important to everyday Canadians. That’s what was heard coming out of his caucus, and he’s going to tackle income inequality – things like wireless and cellular rates, housing affordability, and of course childcare. These are issues that matter to Canadians, but right now the NDP isn’t as visible as it needs to be, and it’s leader certainly isn’t.”

JW: “In many ways Andrew Scheer has the same challenge that Jagmeet has, that he better come up with some policy that differentiates himself and his party that appeals to his core constituency and his base, whether it’s something on tax, or some other issue that he can really own as his own. At the moment just running around in a checked shirt I don’t really think is going to take him from he is to where he needs to go.”

(As published on cbc.ca)

Don’t be fooled by the foolishness, Trump is getting things done: Watt

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The spectacle continues.

It’s fair to say that the presidency of Donald Trump looks, from the outside, to be nothing short of a circus.

The last week alone served up a heaping helping of the ridiculous. The president referred to a handful of nations as “s—hole” countries, which the media gleefully plastered as headlines all over their products and platforms, right before roundly condemning the president as racist and ignorant.

Credible media outlets also obsessed over whether President Trump is six-foot-three or actually six-foot-two, and whether he could be defined as obese or not (should this now be known as the “girther” movement?).

The noise is inescapable; a frantic cycle from which we can’t escape morning or night:

First, Trump makes an absurd, flippant remark. Media outlets blare headlines about the comment. The analysis from pundits frowning and condemning politicians begins. The final step: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s unshakable and inscrutable press secretary, stands in front of a room of incredulous journalists and denies that the events ever took place with a look of earnest belief.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

It is an avalanche of headlines that has begun to wear down even the most avid politicos.

These occurrences have been presented as evidence of the incompetence of the White House, or as failures of the president more generally. And, indeed, there have certainly been failures. Large and small, this White House has demonstrated that it is more than capable of getting itself into messes – time and again.

For example, the White House regularly sends news releases out with incorrect information or misspelled names. It is the sort of detail that no other White House in history would have missed — and it stands, or at least is interpreted as, an indictment of the “back office” behind the current administration.

If it can’t get the little things right, how on Earth can it get the big ones right?

And yet, a record is emerging. It is not the record you could have expected based on the thousands of errors, forced and unforced, that have been incurred by the White House administration in the last year.

There are actually a number of impressive legislative accomplishments; accomplishments that go unrecognized thanks to all the noise and nonsense.

For instance, a comprehensive tax reform bill that once appeared doomed due to its unpopularity recently passed the House and Senate despite the hysterical outcry of Democrats. In fact, recent polling indicates that Americans have begun to take a shine to the once-unthinkable bill, and corporations have been making high-profile announcements about returning capital and jobs to the U.S., crediting the changes.

Trump has also had a remarkable run in reshaping the American judiciary. While his appointment of the reliably right-wing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is certainly his highest-profile accomplishment, he has appointed a bevy of lower-ranking justices who will help to reshape and craft America’s legal landscape for decades to come.

But perhaps Trump’s most shocking contribution has been on the foreign policy stage. Once derided as a know-nothing disruptor who would upset the global equilibrium, Trump’s aggressive foreign policy has had significant and positive impact on the world that has received little recognition in public discussion.

His tough talk on North Korea, for instance, has been roundly mocked as unbecoming of a leader. But one of North Korea’s highest-ranking diplomatic defectors went on the record to point out that North Korea looked at former presidents as considerably more “gentle” than Trump, and that his rhetoric has likely spooked the regime into inaction. Indeed, it is notable that the rogue state has significantly slowed its aggressions since the war of words escalated.

Similarly, Trump’s address to the United Nations criticizing the Iranian regime was derided. Pundits argued that it did nothing to unsettle the regime, and had actually united Iranians behind their government. However, just a few short months later, Iran is being rocked by the strongest anti-regime protests in nearly a decade.

The declaration that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel ignited a similar furor. Allied nations and pundits were united in their condemnation that the move would cause unrest in the region.

Instead, protests in the region were relatively minor. While as expected, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and a host of other countries condemned the move, behind the scenes, it has been reported that those countries continue to ally themselves ever-closer to the United States than they had been in years past.

Daesh continues to retreat. Russia’s aggressions against its neighbours have calmed. China appears wary of the unpredictable administration.

It is a foreign policy record that many U.S. presidents would have liked.

So, don’t be fooled by the foolishness. Despite the blaring headlines and constant outrage, this presidency has made significant lunges towards its goals.

Voters are noticing. Trump’s approval ratings improved last week to a seven-month high, according to poll aggregator FiveThirtyEight, though his ratings are much lower than those of other presidents at this point in their tenures.

This is not to say that the Republicans will not be shellacked in the mid-terms, as governing parties so often are. But it may yet be premature to write Trump’s obituary as a one-term president.

CNN may just be had, yet again. 2020 awaits.

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

(As published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 21, 2018)

Newman On NAFTA: Trump Has Done It Again, Expect The Unexpected In Montreal Next Week

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Ensight’s Don Newman on what to watch for as NAFTA talks resume in Montreal next week, when President Trump could give the mandatory 6 month notice or if the talks should go on hiatus until the Mexican election on July 1st.

Don’t be surprised. Donald Trump has done it again. As negotiations resume in Montreal next week on changing NAFTA, there is now confusion over how long the talks will continue.

The talks effectively stalled over a series of American demands that neither Canada nor Mexico can even contemplate agreeing to. It has been widely anticipated that after the Montreal round concludes January 28th, Trump would inform the U.S. Congress that as President, he was giving the mandatory six month notice that he planned to take the United States out of the NAFTA treaty.

It is generally understood in Washington that Trump believes that during the six months that the clock runs on the withdrawal announcement, Canada and Mexico will be panicked into making concessions on the U.S. demands that have been are so far unacceptable.

This week he conceded as much. He tweeted that “NAFTA is a bad joke,” and he told the Reuters News agency that he believes it will take a NAFTA cancellation notice to drive the talks to a favourable American conclusion. However, he said many people don’t want him to do that, at least not yet.

Those people are ‎many in the American business community, the farming and agri-food industry and the Senators whose states would be directly affected by a NAFTA termination notice.

They are arguing that signaling an end to NAFTA would adversely affect the roaring American Stock Markets, and dissipate many of the benefits of the massive tax cuts Congress passed just before Christmas.

So it is against that backdrop that the talks will resume this coming week in Montreal. Already, there has been a change to the schedule. Now Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her Mexican and American counterparts will hold their Media conference on Monday, Jan. 29th, one day later than planned.

Whether or not that extra day will be helpful in resolving the deal breaking demands of the Americans remains to be seen.

As a memory refresh, among those demands, is that a new NAFTA would have a five year sunset clause, unless all three countries agreed to renew it for another five years.
That the findings from independent dispute settlement panels would no longer be enforceable and that the ability of companies in one country to sue the government of another would be curtailed.

And that access to countries procurement contracts in the United States would be limited to the dollar value of procurement contracts available for American companies in Canada or Mexico. Given the discrepancies in the size of the U.S. Economy to the other two, that proposal would mean American companies would have access to all Canadian procurement contracts, and Canada to only a small percentage of those available in the U.S.

Equally unacceptable are demands for increased American content in automobiles manufactured under NAFTA. And the perennial demand that Canada’s supply management dairy marketing system be disbanded.

Having planned to apply the pressure of a threatened withdrawal as soon as possible, now Trump has been musing that perhaps the three country negotiations should go on hiatus until after July 1st. That’s not out of any respect for Canada’s Birthday. July 1st is also the date of Mexico’s Presidential election, and as Trump has pointed out, the closer to the election the harder it is for that country to make the concessions the United States wants.

If he decides to wait, that doesn’t mean the Americans won’t use the withdrawal threat. It just means a change in timing.

Because Trump still believes that a trade agreement can be negotiated the way he negotiated real estate deals, with bluster and threats, as he detailed in his book, “The Art of The Deal.”

And many in his administration believe that the full out campaign Canada and Mexico have launched to save NAFTA,‎ in more or less its present form, means that the current agreement favours those countries to the detriment of the United States. That being the case, both Canada and Mexico should have things to give in the current negotiations.

So with that as the American perspective, and an “Art of the Deal” negotiating mentality, don’t be surprised by anything that could transpire at the Montreal NAFTA negotiations next week.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Ensight and Navigator Limited, a Member of the Order of Canada, Chairman of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Conservatives’ political kryptonite – good economic numbers for Liberals: Mackenzie

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In the heart of the Ottawa political bubble is another bubble of active users of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram centered around Canadian politics (#cdnpoli if you will.)

When I open my phone, I can’t scroll through without finding dozens of tweets from Cabinet Ministers, Liberal Members of Parliament and commentators, and local supporters pulling from a crib sheet of positive economic stats. They note that under the Trudeau government, “Canada now has its lowest unemployment rate in over 40 years,” “Our growth leads the G7,” and that “the economy created about 700,000 new jobs since our government took office.”

It’s clear that the Liberal communications plan is rooted in one of the iron laws of politics enumerated in 1992 by Clinton campaign guru James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

What isn’t clear, however, is whether the Tories have a plan to combat this message. Just two years ago, they were the self-styled party of “economic action” led by a taciturn Prime Minister with a background in economics (a credential repeated ad nauseam by Conservative apparatchiks.)

At the time, Liberals didn’t have much of a response. Although the historical context indicates that Liberal governments are generally more fiscally responsible than Conservative governments, arguments that require listener to consider historical context aren’t often very sexy and don’t win elections.

Despite Paul Martin’s sterling economic credentials as Finance Minister, which gave him license to run and govern as Prime Minister on a platform of aggressive and overdue social reforms, the post-Jean Chrétien Liberals faced down a serious loss of trust following the Gomery Commission being called. After delivering a seemingly mortal blow to the Liberal brand, the Conservatives were able to seize the economic narrative that had underpinned the previous 13 years of Liberal government.

In the present day, however, the Tories haven’t yet had a number to hang over Liberal heads. This message of Liberal economic bona fides is one that is particularly damaging to the Conservative brand.

Deficits are a point that remain an open challenge for the Liberals to rein in, but there are indications that Canadians are okay with being in the red right now, in both senses.

Canadians won’t soon forget that Liberals openly committed to running deficits in order to boost economic growth in times of low interest rates, which are the investments they are now seeing fruit from.

Part of this inability to compete on economic issues comes from the top. Unlike his predecessor, Andrew Scheer, the current leader of the Conservatives, isn’t an economist. His party will need more than a few former Harper-era ministers, and his economic plan will certainly need to be more than simply not doing things that Trudeau is doing, if they want to make economics a battleground in 2019.

All economies are cyclical, and Canada’s is no exception. There will be ebbs and flows in economic growth and employment, neither of which can nor should be controlled by government. However, long-term economic trends are being shaped by increased economic participation by low-income individuals, women and a diverse range of individuals who have been sidelined for too long.

Liberals understand that the biggest untapped resource is those low-income individuals who their transfers seek to directly boost, because these individuals want to contribute, but currently cannot do so because their most basic needs aren’t met. In addition to being simply the right thing to do, helping those struggling with poverty and homelessness also makes good economic sense.

Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has been deservedly lauded for his work to provide a national housing strategy, to deliver a coordinated plan to combat homelessness and to improve benefits for seniors and new parents. It’s extremely fitting to place a former economist at the heart of the government’s plan to reduce inequality. It was no accident.

Carville was right: it truly boils down to the economy, especially during elections. We should aspire to create an economy that includes and benefits everybody, especially those excluded for so long.

It’s the right thing to do.

(As published on The Huffington Post Canada)

President Winfrey has its allure, but another celebrity is not the solution

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It seems that with politics, just like Hollywood, what’s old is new again.

In Hollywood, the old ideas include Star Wars, Roseanne, Jurassic Park, Jumanji and many more.

In politics, it’s Mitt Romney, Justin Trudeau, Caroline Mulroney and now Oprah.

Winfrey first flirted with politics back in 2008 when she endorsed then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. It is estimated that her support of Obama generated more than a million votes for the candidate and played a significant role in his fundraising capacity.

Since then, Winfrey has never indicated she would be interested in running for the U.S. presidency. As recently as this summer, Winfrey said, she would not run for public office, let alone for president.

How the tides have turned. And now, anticipation is running high. Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday electrified audiences the world over and inspired media to spill thousands of barrels of ink on her potential presidential ambitions.

It triggered 3.1 billion social media impressions, the hashtag #Oprah2020 was part of 50,255 tweets and the numbers go on.

Speculation about celebrities with political aspirations is not new. Just about every presidential election cycle since the Reagan years has seen celebrities hint about running.

However, those flirtations were usually dismissed as improbable, if not outright impossible. Conventional wisdom held that despite initial enthusiasm the lack of conventional political infrastructure doomed these ventures from the start.

Trump’s election to the presidency fundamentally altered that long-entrenched view.

The fact that news networks, pundits, social media, and water-cooler analysts are taking the #Oprah2020 hashtag seriously is because Trump has legitimized the idea that a celebrity can come from outside one of the two old-line political parties and take the Oval Office. As a result, a famous television host becoming the leader of the free world no longer seems crazy.

Perhaps more importantly, the speed and intensity with which Winfrey was able to gain legitimate momentum last week demonstrates that voters are willing to think seriously and differently about what type of person they want to hold high public office.

Does someone’s celebrity alone qualify them to be president or prime minister? Does it matter what has made them famous?

Is this a new way of looking at things or is it merely an evolution of a path we have been on for some time?

It goes without saying, Oprah is in a class with very few others. She is a woman with a very significant following, and with good reason. She has acted as a spiritual leader and symbol of unity in America for decades. She is one of only a handful of people who is recognizable on a first name-only basis.

There are persuasive arguments that a President Winfrey could be a healing presidency; one that may be sorely needed after four years of division under an aggressive president who has significantly exacerbated previously existing tensions.

But there remain other challenges.

The presidency of the United States, like all elected positions, doesn’t come with training wheels. They are complex positions that require leadership, expertise and experience; a sophisticated grasp of the intricacies of public policy and a strong understanding of how power is wielded.

When it comes time to choose our leaders, hopefully we think about his or her experience, qualifications, love of country, dedication, purpose, ideology, policy and legislative expertise.

Hopefully, we don’t think too much about a candidate’s social media followers, television ratings, product lines, award acceptance speeches, hair, or whether they’d be a great person with whom to have a drink.

Celebrities often bring strong advocacy skills. They are often powerful at raising money, awareness and changing people’s opinions. They are often persuasive, empathetic, expert communicators.

And that’s a great start. But what doesn’t follow is a fluency in the sphere of democratic institutions and public policy initiatives. Being a democratic leader requires much more than speaking louder than everyone else. Or having more followers on Twitter.

The fix to what currently ails the American presidency is not more of what injured it in the first place. The challenges of this presidency, the challenges that so many Americans chafe against, will not be solved by doubling down. It may well be better to change course altogether.

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

(As published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, January 14, 2018)

Canada failed Abdoul Abdi but it’s not too late to do the right thing

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“If it was your son, would you do anything to stop this?”

This was the question posed directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by Fatouma, the sister of Abdoul Abdi, at a town hall event in Halifax this week.

Abdi’s is a tragic story that highlights the gaps in Canadian institutions and systems that disproportionately and negatively impact Black Canadians.

Abdi came to Canada as a child refugee from Somalia in 2000 with his sister and aunts. His mother died in a refugee camp while awaiting the three-year process that eventually landed his family here.

Under uncertain circumstances, of which his family continues to seek clarification due to language barriers at the time, the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services removed a 7-year-old Abdi and his sister from the care of their aunt. Over the next decade the siblings were separated and Abdi was shuffled between 31 homes.

Abdi’s aunt never stopped fighting for guardianship, and while she obtained her own citizenship she was denied the opportunity to apply for citizenship on behalf of her niece and nephew. While under child protection, Abdi was provided insufficient support to navigate the process of becoming a Canadian citizen on his own.

He was failed by the very system that was meant to protect him.

For child welfare advocates, Abdi’s story and path from care to the criminal justice system is a familiar one. For the crimes he committed in his youth, which included aggravated assault, time has justly been served. At the moment of his release, as he prepared to reunite with his family and reintegrate into society, Abdi was detained once more.

Without his citizenship in place, Abdi was left vulnerable to the immigration process that could possibly lead to deportation.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder to speak truth to power, advocates across Canada have spoken out with a resounding roar on Abdi’s behalf, garnering attention and seeking immediate remedy for his case.

In response to Fatouma’s question, Trudeau emphasized compassion and empathy while outlining the ways in which he recognized Canadian systems failed Abdi.

“It opened our eyes to something that many of us knew was ongoing in many communities but we continue to need to address,” he said.

While his response was well informed, I would have liked to hear the prime minister name systemic anti-Black racism as a key factor to be addressed.

We need to directly acknowledge the cracks in our government systems through which Black Canadians are falling through at disproportionately high rates so that we can proactively tackle them.

South of our border, the president of the United States has continued his divisive political agenda anchored in anti-Black racism. After hearing of his comments this week I wonder how his defenders continue to uphold him as a leader.

Characterizing Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “s—hole countries,” in an immigration meeting Trump reportedly asked, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”

As thousands of Haitian families look to Canada in the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind deportation protections from nearly 60,000 Haitian refugees following the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, I hope Canada will show the compassion and empathy our prime minister talked about in his town hall this week and take them in.

Canada should be aiming for nothing less than global leadership in the steps we take to address anti-Black racism. To do this successfully we will need active engagement from Canadian political leaders.

They should be proactively partnering with Black communities to identify priorities, set goals, communicate them publicly, and track progress toward success.

It’s difficult to engage in dialogue about policy while Abdi and his family live in crisis, facing this terrifying uncertainty. I hope this nightmare is over for them very soon.

But how is it fair that his story be used to advance public policy before his own livelihood is restored?

It is time for him to be reunited with his family so they may begin the long journey of healing from these painful experiences. That is what’s fair.

And I hope once that happens we can dive deeply into rectifying the systems that failed him, and map our way 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.

(As published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, January 14, 2018)

Trump the Disruptor: Don Newman

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Since Donald Trump was sworn into office a year ago as president of the United States with his “America First” agenda, friends and allies have been lamenting the lack of world leadership by the United States.

That is, until December 6th. In a classic case of be careful what you wish for, Trump stood the world on its head by reversing 70 years of American policy in the Middle East. Despite entreaties from everyone including NATO Allies, Arab governments throughout the area and even the Pope, Trump announced he was moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Like Trump, other politicians in the heat of an election campaign have promised to move their country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In 1979, Conservative Leader Joe Clark made that promise. It helped him win a minority government. But once in office, he realized his mistake and enlisted former Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield to help him abandon his pledge. Stanfield led a commission which “studied” the question and recommended against the move.

That’s because the ultimate fate of Jerusalem is an intricate part of any future Middle East solution. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians claim the historic city as their capital. Now, by siding with the Israeli claim, the most important outside participant in any future settlement has picked a side in the dispute. Trump has made an already intractable problem almost impossible to solve.

However, no longer can it be said that, under Trump, the United States has abdicated its role in the world. The lesson going forward is that as long as Trump is president, the United States will play the role internationally that he is playing in domestic politics.

More than anything else, Donald Trump is a disruptor. He is in domestic politics and he is in international affairs. Untutored in history, world affairs or diplomacy, he responds to situations on an individual basis, unable to see connective linkages between different problems.

For instance, if he wanted to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, why did he not first demand something from the Israelis.

A firm pledge to stop building more settlements in the West Bank as a quid pro quo for the Jerusalem recognition would have gone at least some way to mitigating the reaction to the move. And it would have removed a real impediment to a future final settlement.

Such an arrangement would have been less disruptive than what we now have. But Trump doesn’t seem to care. As a disruptor he thrives on disruption, on throwing adversaries and allies off balance, seeking from their confusion an advantage for America and for himself.

Close to home, Canadians can see that strategy in the current negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement. The United States has proposed several changes to the treaty that are complete non-starters for both Canada and Mexico. Soon Trump will inform the U.S. Congress that he is giving six months notice that he is terminating the deal. Then, in that half-year when NAFTA is in limbo, American negotiators will apply the pressure. Ultimately, Canada will have to decide if a bad NAFTA is better than no NAFTA at all.

In the wider world, North Korea, China and Iran are areas of intense Trump interest and concern. He alternately threatens and then hints at negotiations with them. How they respond at any given time seems to affect both his mood and his approach. Chinese President Xi Jinping alternates between being an ally trying to contain North Korea and a competitor out to destroy American power.

Even with Kim Jong-Un, the erratic North Korean president who is developing nuclear missiles to hit North America, Trump has vacillated between threatening to obliterate his country and negotiating.

When Donald Trump assumed office in January 2017, many people hoped his fiery, uninformed rhetoric of the presidential campaign would be tempered once in power. That he would become more “presidential” in the traditional American way.

That has not happened. One year on, he is as unstable and unpredictable as ever. He dominates the domestic politics of his country. By his actions in the Middle East in December he has shown he will dominate international affairs as well.

America has not abandoned its international role. Under Donald Trump it is just playing it a different way.

Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Navigator Limited and Ensight Canada, Chair of Canada 2020 and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

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Reading Victories in Relief: The Unspoken Trump-Trudeau Accord

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In his address to American governors in July, Justin Trudeau updated his father’s famous quip that sharing a border with their country was like sleeping next to an elephant by describing Canada, in our bilateral metaphor, as not a mouse but a moose,“strong and peaceable but still massively outweighed.” The famously emotionally intelligent Liberal leader’s interactions with his notoriously combustible counterpart have, so far, been conducted on that basis. Liberal strategist John Delacourt writes that Canada has benefited from the approach.

It was, for many who have followed the trajectory and travails of President Donald Trump over the last two years, a moment that had all the potential of a radical and troubling turn in Canada-U.S. relations. On June 21, 2017, a Montreal man, Amor M. Ftouhi, entered the Bishop International Airport in Flint, Michigan and attacked Lt. Jeff Neville, an airport security officer, with a knife. Ftouhi yelled “Allahu akbar,” while stabbing the officer in the neck and further exclaimed (paraphrased) “You have killed people in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and we are all going to die.”

It wouldn’t have taken more than a couple of evenings’ worth of Trump’s tweets to anticipate how this could have played out on social media. What was worse, this incident occurred when the Canadian government was investing a great deal of political capital in bolstering our trade relations in key constituencies outside of Washington. With just one tweet, the president could have demonized Canada as a haven for terrorists, led by a leftwing government that would pay for its leniency and inaction with sanctions on the flow of goods and citizens across our shared border. Not only could the NAFTA renegotiations have been at risk; any future bilaterals could have been marked by a shift in tone and a diminishment of bargaining room.

Hours later, there was still nary a tweet from Trump. Those hours stretched to days. An incident that offered an ideal opportunity for the president to fire up his base and bolster a case for some of his most incendiary rhetoric on Islamism and public safety dissolved amid the workaday news cycle of micro-crises and Twitter flame wars. What could be said at all about Ftouhi was said clearly in Canadian news reports; what could not be talked about in Washington was passed over in silence.

But why was there restraint on Trump’s Twitter feed, of all places? Much has been made of Trump’s impulsive nature, his rants that enrage progressives and pundits alike (Trump’s point is often that they are too alike). A shift in tone from a tweet at 4 a.m. could have easily destabilized Canada-U.S. relations and diminished the currency Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Transport Minister Marc Garneau, chair of the Canada-U.S. cabinet committee, could summon in their meetings with their interlocutors in the U.S. President Trump might be less impulsive than we think.

We averted this potential crisis because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken Trump’s perspective seriously from the very beginning. This is not the same thing as agreement—either tacit or explicit.

The best illustration of this dynamic recently emerged in one of Trump’s speeches to a partisan crowd in Florida. He said: “I like the prime minister very much. Prime Minister Trudeau. Nice guy. Good guy. No, I like him. But we had a meeting … He said, ‘No, no, you have a trade surplus.’ I said, ‘No we don’t.’ He said, ‘No, no you have a trade surplus … I told my people – in front of a lot of people – I said, ‘Go out and check.’” Trump then affirmed he was eventually proven right – a conclusion Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaughton felt obliged to correct on Twitter: “U.S. goods and services trade surplus with Canada was $12.5 billion in 2016.”

The neutral, matter of fact tone of MacNaughton’s response is telling. Trudeau, his Cabinet and his senior advisers have all resisted speaking ill of the president on social media. This is not a small thing with the president or his office and you can be assured it has been noted. Differences are aired in conversation but they are not then reduced to a series of 140-character reports—or retorts.

It might drive many progressives and journalists to distraction that more isn’t done to counter Trump from his chosen virtual bully pulpit, but the Flint incident is indicative of how to read and understand what success means in Canada-U.S. relations during this presidency. As it is with success in the government’s issues management or its public safety and security files, it’s more about the crises that are averted rather than a tally of victories from a clash of adversaries.

The threats to our economy have been significant. The NAFTA negotiations have not, as of yet, dissolved acrimoniously. The border tax Republican leaders in the House of Representatives pushed for in 2017, proposed to raise revenues to help pay for tax cuts, did not move forward as planned. The risk to our steel industry of a tariff that would essentially shut us out of the U.S. market still exists, but nothing will occur on this front until the Section 232 investigation into steel imports is complete and it has yet to move to report stage.

All of these unfortunate developments could still occur before the end of Trudeau’s first mandate. Anyone following the NAFTA negotiations closely would wager the agreement may be the first casualty in a trading relationship that remains, as so much within the orbit of Trump’s musings, veering perilously close to calamity. And yet, as the Flint incident would affirm, there is strong reason to believe our good fortune is more than provisional.

Can this good fortune go beyond bilateral relations? Probably not. Trudeau may not be, as some might suggest, a Trump whisperer for his interlocutors at the G20. His closest advisers both acknowledge how such a perception might resonate and gently dismiss it. Yes, it is true that Trudeau has been approached in the setting of a multilateral meeting and asked about “Donald” as if he had some better insight into the mind of Trump, but no, there is no more substantial mediating role the prime minister has taken on.

What should matter more to Canadians, especially those whose jobs might be at risk with NAFTA, is that as of December 2017, the president and the PM have spoken on the phone 17 times since Trump’s election. This is more than any other leader that Trump has engaged with in his term of office. Most important, in these conversations Trump has not only acknowledged the validity of the Prime Minister’s perspective but he has listened.

This speaks of a working rapport that transcends their ideological differences. Trump sees in Trudeau an underdog candidate who came from behind, captured the public imagination and overturned the existing order on his charisma and his emotional intelligence; he read the mood of the country and embodied it. The president believes they have this story in common; the advisors around him and apparently the GOP itself are not about to disabuse Trump of this notion.

The result of the Trudeau government’s approach requires a read of Canada-U.S. relations in relief rather than a focus on the foreground. We are now more than a year into Trump’s mandate and there has been no seismic shift in trade relations that has caused job losses or any slowing of economic growth on this side of the border.

The question remains though: does this make Canada any less vulnerable to an unexpected decision by Trump and his inner circle that could have huge consequences for our economy? If you believe that relationships matter, even within the highest executive office, you will find reason to be optimistic. We have been critical but our criticism has not, from the President’s perspective, threatened to puncture the news filter bubbles of his base. The Trudeau government has been respectful of Trump’s rapport with his constituency and he has been respectful of Trudeau’s in turn.

As with so much about Trump’s time in office, this might matter until it doesn’t anymore. To impose a rational construct on this embattled presidency may prove to be wishful thinking. Yet, as it was with the Flint incident, each crisis averted is an unheralded but substantial achievement.

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

(As published in the Jan-Feb edition of Policy Magazine “Trump and the World” and on policymagazine.ca)

Canada-U.S. Relations: Tweet Storms, Fault Lines and Seismic Shifts

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On a day when those who follow federal politics closely on both sides of the border are no doubt scrambling for their hardcover copy of Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s instant bestseller on the Trump administration, it is a fitting moment to look ahead and identify the true, emerging issues that will have the greatest impact on the Canadian economy for 2018. So much media attention is focused on the unfolding drama within the West Wing that it is easy to presume that the geopolitical implications of Trump’s tweets represent the greatest risk for economic stability, never mind world peace. But the Trudeau government will have to contend with far greater concerns than the President’s taunting of North Korea (and/or Steve Bannon) in the year ahead, as it grapples with the defining issue of its mandate: the fate of NAFTA.

In 2018, Trudeau’s team is not going to deviate from what’s working; they have launched the second phase of the “doughnut strategy,” literally going around Washington to focus on high level meetings with their interlocutors at the state level to talk up the advantages of strong trade relations. A strategy that has Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale in Kentucky and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in California currently. These are wise moves planned in advance of the next round of talks on January 23rd in Montreal.

The one trip down south to pay the closest attention to, however, is Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay’s to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention in Tennessee – from today until Monday.

The agricultural sector’s export potential deserves more coverage and strategic focus; as the second Barton report from the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth affirmed, one in eight Canadian jobs depends on its growth and innovation. Also, the strong tone of accord on agricultural issues has stood out among the NAFTA negotiations, providing hope that we can build on these incremental successes. And yet the Trudeau government’s steadfast resistance to sacrificing supply management could emerge as one of a few key deal breakers in the negotiations. Consider that Trump himself will be in Tennessee for this convention in Tennessee, shoring up support with his base, and it is easy to imagine that a clarion call from the podium – followed up with a tweet in full caps decrying Canadian farmers of course – could mark the beginning of the end for NAFTA.

In the meantime, there are other key decision points in Canada-US relations that have the potential to create a significant impact on the economic picture here. With the passing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in Washington in December, the federal corporate tax rate has dropped from 35 to 20 percent in the US. Canadian manufacturers have warned of the effects of such a scenario; investment flows, especially in machinery and equipment, could start to move southward very quickly. Knock-on decision points with the America First agenda, embodied in NAFTA, also include a hinge point for Canadian steel producers on January 15th; the US investigation into the potential risks that steel imports pose to national security, known as the Section 232 probe, will announce its findings, and there are serious implications here – not least with, say pipeline construction across our shared border. Stories on these developments don’t get the ink or provoke the Tweet storms (or should we say ‘bomb cyclones’) of the House of Cards plot line in Washington, but, taken together, they provide a composite, nuanced overview of where the fault lines are truly emerging with our most important trading relationship. And from fault lines one can best read where a seismic shift emerges.

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

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

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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)