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One week to go in #Elxn43: Mo-alition?

In 7 days, plus a few hrs, the polls will be closing in the 43rd general election in Canada.

There will be 338 local elections that will determine who the area’s Member of Parliament (MP) will be from 2019 – ? (More on the “?”, below).

The parties these MPs-elect belong to (shocker – even though they are running, no independents will win (except…maybe, Jody Wilson-Raybould), anywhere in Canada – though some of the new MPs may become politically homeless and ‘independent’ during their term of office) will then stack up from first to last in seat totals.

As of today, it’s easier to start from last and get toward the first place party with declining degrees of confidence.

Last: People’s Party of Canada. One seat ceiling. And even that may be a squeaker.

Fifth: Green Party of Canada. While the party looks like it will at least double its vote total from the 2015 general election (to 8+% of the national vote), they are highly unlikely to elect more MPs than will fit (comfortably) in a Toyota Prius. I canvassed performance-related issues in past week’s blog, but I think the major disconnect between total green votes and seat count will be (a) the electoral system we have (First Past the Post – FPTP), and the fact that the transition from ‘movement’ to political party is hard, painful, unglamorous work.

Third/Fourth: Until the last few days, it would have been unpopular (but, accurate) to suggest the NDP may once again drop to 4th place party status. Stagnant in the polls over the last few years, the NDP has bounced from the low to high teens in most polls. The Bloc Québécois (BQ) have been polling anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 (occasionally a little higher) of the total national NDP support, but because they are only focused on running 75 candidates (and many of those even in no-hope ridings), not 338. As of today, it’d be foolish to declare that the NDP will definitely finish fourth. The number of pollsters, headlines, hashtags and other things declaring a #singhsurge and using the sought-after word “Momentum”, is legion. All four of the leading parties have proven they can sweep 2/3+ of Quebecers off their couches and into a ballot box in recent decades, so the likelihood of the BQ winning the most seats in Quebec is getting higher every day. It’s a question of *if* and *where* the NDP sees the vote upswing, in the GTA, prairies, BC and pockets of Atlantic Canada, that will translate that into seats and determine the 3/4th place finishers.

Second/First: For the first time since the election started, seat projection models (338 and CBC’s Poll Tracker) both this weekend dipped into (and in one case, back out of) Conservative minority government forecasts. All the pollsters have the Liberals dipping, and with the BQ rise in Quebec and the NDP seeing momentum in its corner, the liberals have dropped by 20-30 seats in most forecasts in the past few weeks. You can see from Trudeau’s campaigning in four NDP-held in Ontario today, and the Tories going after Liberal-held seats in Winnipeg, while the NDP darts in and out of B.C. Liberal seats, that everyone is trying to open the closing week of the campaign on offence. And, as always, not all of them are doing that with a straight face.

So, to some numbers.

Just under 18 million people cast ballots in the 2015 federal election. That was a 68.3% turnout of eligible voters. That represented a 10% increase in voter turnout over the 2008 election, and was up ~7% over the 2011 election.

Advance polls in Canada opened on October 11th. As of this morning, the final day for advance poll voting, Elections Canada says over 2 million people have turned up/out to vote. That was up 25% over the total advance polls in 2015.

I can go dig up and throw lots and lots of stats out there. But I think my friends in Academia do they much, much better than I can. And, as Shania Twain would say, that likely ‘don’t impress (you) much’.

Here are a few reflections on the week that was, the week to come, and the “what then?”

Last week – Smile, you’re on camera!

Leader’s Debates – I said debates don’t deliver knock-out punches. And the neither the English or French debates did. You’ve no doubt seen lots of breathless coverage of the English language debate from October 7th, so I’ll just say this.

Too. Many. People. On. Stage.

5 moderators. 6 party leaders. Are you kidding me?

Rosie Barton was by far the most non-nonsense moderator, but by the time her section came the arse was already out of ‘er, as we’d say on the east coast.

Max got more attention than ~1% of the national vote merits/merited him. YFB surprised a lot of English Canadians, and was the only person with little-to-nothing to lose. He looked it.

(Note: I saw some friends in a spirited social media debate about why YFB/the BQ were even there in the English debate, since they only represent Quebec interests. We’ll see what happens when the Alberta Separatist/Firewall party really gets going during next few years, and likely revisit this question…)

There were a few good zingers/one-liners.

Singh was funny, authentic and “on message” (boy was he on-message). Most reviews gave him the performance of the night. It helped him that expectations were generally low. But he did perform well for the format.

Scheer did solidly, although he was clearly frustrated in not being able to have just a 2 hour debate with Trudeau. He got off a few good lines, and was the target of a bunch of base-satisfying cracks from May, Singh and Trudeau. He probably would have rather been watching football, though.

Trudeau has a classic front-runner strategy – try not to f*^k it up, as a former co-worker would have said. And, thanks to the format, he largely didn’t. He was a punching bag for Scheer, but his time in the ring has taught him how to duck and weave. Inconsistent moderating made “talking over” a feature of many of Trudeau’s interactions with other leaders.

May was fine, if largely ineffective overall. She was super-on-message (like, really on message). The problem for her was both the format, and the need to always try and be “clever”. These debates have never leant themselves to that tendency, and beyond getting off a good line or two, the new format didn’t, either. In a four-party debate, where cameras would a third leader in the shot more often and with a consistent moderator, she might have had more chance to shine.

This week – Farwell Andrew, we hardly knew ye

People better have purchased A LOT of offsets for the amount of ground that will be covered this week.

It’s a virtual certainty that Andrew Scheer will spend a good part of this week speaking to an internal audience. All of the predictable warnings against some kind of coalition government are not really aimed at converting voters to his cause, although they will be styled that way (CBC, the Globe, and most other national outlets are carrying some version of a story today that Singh and Trudeau are both open to a coalition government to “stop” the Conservatives). His biggest threat comes from within. Already, there are open rumours of Peter MacKay’s supporters readying his leadership bid. If Scheer does not win a majority, or a minority that has a seat total greater than the Liberals + NDP + Greens, he is unlikely to make it to the next election as leader.

Given where he and his party were in the polls in the late Winter, and the series of cudgels handed to him by the Trudeau team with which he could chip away at their support…he had proven unable to break through.

After this is all over, he will be trying to figure out how he can position himself to succeed Scott Moe in the Saskatchewan Premier’s office in a few years time.

Why do I say that – especially if the Conservatives win a plurality of seats next Monday night? See section below, on what’s next.

For the balance of this week, however, you can expect a lot of exhorting, some fear-mongering, awkward political-mating dances, party leaders telling you to do “what you feel is right” (and then explaining what that is), warnings about taxing-and-spending, warnings about deep cuts, alarms about the climate crisis, xenophobic rhetoric and the like.

And expect a lot of use of the phrase ‘only I/we/(insert party name)’ – as each leader tries to show their unique value proposition in a crowded marketplace for votes.

With the security threats to the PM, there will almost certainly be stories or reports of online interference and dirty deeds by ‘foreign actors’, and more moments that make us shake our head and say “this is Canada, right?”

What’s next – Some leadership races, Queen bees and lots of jockeying

I said it last week and I stand by it. Justin Trudeau will remain Prime Minister on the 22nd. Why do I say that? Well, because it’s true. Blame it on the Queen.

Our system of government requires a PM in place at all times. And the only way you exit the job is through being asked to leave (super-rare) resigning (most frequent) or dying (thankfully, not often).

There will be a lot of analysis and bon mots from the commentariat over the next few weeks about “precedents”, “conventions”, “practice”, and a lot of bandying-about of the word “constitution”. Oh, and the word “confidence” will be used a lot, too.

As the current Prime Minister, JT has a kind of tenure. Sort of like that Academic tenure you often hear about. As it stands, either the Governor-General can request him to step down (with, of course, the express knowledge and consent of the Queen, on whose behalf Mme. Payette acts), or he can offer his resignation. Losing the popular vote, and/or a plurality of seats in the House of Commons do not necessarily lead to this outcome.

In an election as close as this one appears to be, it’s a numbers game. The magic number is around 169. With 338 seats in Parliament, and the Speaker *ordinarily* coming from among the government caucus ranks, the number of votes needed to achieve a majority is about 169, presuming no sicknesses, vacancies or absences.

The forecasts as of today have the Liberals around the 130-140 mark, the Conservatives in the same range, the BQ in the low-30s and the NDP in the 25-30 range. The Greens sit at 4 seats or less, and the PPC at 0-1.

If this precise scenario holds, the Liberals could win a plurality of seats and a minority government. Then the negotiations begin about the management of this scenario (I will write more on this next week).

With 50-60 seats likely to be decided by less than 1000 votes (that seems like a lot, but not on ridings of 75-100k electors), final forecasts at this juncture are a poorly-laid bet. As above, I think it’s a relatively equal possibility they the Conservatives or Liberals win a plurality of the seats.

But (also as above) JT will remain PM on October 22nd under either a blue or red narrow plurality scenario.

If the Liberals gain a plurality, depending how precarious, they will start into discussions with the opposition parties about formal or informal arrangements to support them on confidence measures.

If they win a strong plurality, expect to see them proceed on a “land of many options” approach – one where they keep their options open and say enough good things in their maiden minority Throne Speech to plausibly gain the support of the BQ, NDP and Greens.

If the liberals are within ~10 seats behind the Conservatives, Acheer will still declare a “win”. In fact, if he gets one more seat than the Liberals, you can bet he’ll pull a Blaine Higgs and say Trudeau must do the right thing and step aside for him.

Not much is likely to blunt the Tories’ inevitable apoplexy when the Liberals (also, inevitably) form some arrangement (Coalition, support agreement, whatever) with some combination of opposition parties to remain form a new government.

The Tories will likely – probably even assuredly – approach the Bloc and try and get an agreement of support from them( and on the strength of this approach the Governor-Genera to ask to be allowed to meet the house and see about gaining its confidence. This scenario only works if the Bloc have a fairly good day (30-40 seats), and the Conservatives have a comparatively good outcome (138 minimum, more like low-mid-140s), and the NDP help to knock the Liberals down into the 120s.

Even *if* this occurs, I’d lay money on the fact that Trudeau tries to meet the house and appeal to the NDP (with whom he may have already by then struck a formal agreement, ditto the Greens), and impress the Bloc enough to gain their support — even if they have a “back-stop” agreement of some kind with the Tories.

From here, that looks like a lot of luck rolling in Mr Scheer’s direction.

So – that was long-winded.

To sum-up:
– This week will be full of frenetic campaigning, warnings and recriminations;
– Something like ~16 million (or more?) people could still be voting next Monday. That’s a lot of minds that may or may not be made-up, depending how accurate our polling nationally is;
– If *someone* has a really good piece of “oppo” (see last post for more on this), it will need to drop by late Wednesday/early Thursday in order to have some effect on the outcome and little-to-no-chance-of-recovery for its target;
– Next Monday night, Trudeau will still be PM;
– Within 3-5 weeks, Trudeau will present a new Throne Speech, and within a few weeks will test the house in a confidence vote on that speech (and, I predict, will survive that and remain PM for at least 18 months);
– Andrew Scheer will be facing a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking, open calls for him to step aside, and may even be polishing his CV, by the depths of Winter 2019-20.

Canadian Federal Election musings from a recovering hack (two weeks to go!)

Sitting outside in the warm sun of an October Sunday, it’s hard to embrace the idea that “Winter is coming”; which, electorally and meteorologically, it is.

Two weeks from today is Election Day in Canada.  

The federal election campaign will conclude with balloting on Monday, October 21st, and by the time Canadians wake up on Tuesday, October 22nd, we will know who has been (re)hired for the Prime Minister’s job.

Two weeks from Election Day – what do we know?

What do the polls tell us about vote intention, and what do seat projection models tell us about how support will translate into seats in Canada’s 338-seat House of Commons?

There are plenty of good “strategists” and “advisors” out there on TV or in other forms of broadcast media – many of whom I count as friends.  Most of them are prepared to tell you only their fervently-hoped-for-outcome (because, if you are an active partisan, the desire not to be seen “letting down the side” by embracing and publicly discussing what is *actually happening* tends to govern during an election, especially).

Many of the political scientists and non-aligned pundits being asked for comment will only hedge on definitive answers to any particular outcome-based questions because, well, they’re human. Most people don’t like egg on their faces. 

Let’s be honest, listening to spin gets old quick(ly), and watching “objective” analysts squirm to avoid proffering anything besides generalisms is, well, boring. 

So here are some observations from a former insider and student of politics, about where this campaign is, with two weeks to E-Day.

Burying the lede: Justin Trudeau’s Liberal will win a plurality of seats on October 21st. (This is where most people would insert a series of smart qualifiers and caveats. I insert none. We will wake up with him continuing as PM in two weeks and one day’s time).

How will each party fare in seat count?

Liberals – Down

Tories – Up

NDP – Down

BQ – Up

Greens – Up

Why? As John Kerry’s former advisor once said, the reasons are “…nuanced and multi-faceted”.  But, put simply, most/enough people aren’t ready for a change. And, while there may be (strong?) disapproval for some of the current PM’s actions and approaches (#SNC, #Blackface/brownface, #RIPElectoralreform), there’s not generally seen to be a better alternative out there. I’ve even seen senior (red Tory) Conservatives say “what better option do I have?”

There are and will be lots of localized arguments about the state of the “sign war” (Pro tip: Signs don’t vote) as evidence we Canadians are going to throw the bums out…but, nah.  Not happening.  (For an interesting homage to the resilience of the lawn sign efforts in our digital age, see this piece by the NYT’s Ian Austen last weekend).

There will be plenty of turnover in the Member of Parliament (MP) ranks.  Some of this will be from retirements (as of the Spring, the non-reoffering count was at about 50 MPs.  Since then a number of others have bowed-out).  Others will lose because they won in 2015 on a Trudeau wave (hello, Atlantic Canada and Ontario!), and still others because of a resurgent Bloc Québécois in la belle Provence, pipeline politics and/or hangovers from the major shifts at the provincial government level in Canada since the last Federal election in 2015 (I’m talking about you, Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta; and yes, maybe even the emergent PEI Green enigma).

I’m not going to peg a full-on seat count at this juncture – that may be a bridge-too-far with 2 weeks to go, but I do admire Eric Grenier’s work at CBC and the 338 seat projections, and think they’re both generally in the right direction.  

As of now, and frankly for most of the campaign, they both have the Liberals in the high 150s to 160s, and the Conservatives in the 130-140 range.

The NDP stand to lose 20-30 seats under most projections, and the BQ to gain 4-9 (to land up in the high teens) while the Greens — despite polling consistently at 2x the BQ numbers — are still in the low single digits (between 3-5 seats, total). 

Biggest surprises of the campaign so far:

  • Wilting Mayflower – Elizabeth May rode a wave of momentum into the campaign, with fawning media coverage and use of words like ‘breakthrough’ (see here for one representative piece).  And, to be frank, my thought was that she stood the best chance of turning tonight’s English-language leader’s debate to her advantage. Instead, she’s been beset by predictable gaffes, evidence of how being too grassroots can create a lot of loose ends, and by wonkish answers to emotional and otherwise fundamental questions.
  • #Oppofails — This is, perhaps the worst election in my lifetime for the parties’ to have utterly failed to do “Oppo” (the term of art in politics for getting the destabilizing and otherwise dirty stuff on your opponent) on themselves and their own leaders.  Whether it’s the Mr. Dressup antics of Trudeau or the sketchy CV of Scheer (among other issues across the spectrum), the parties have failed miserably in this dark arts category.

Not surprising:

  • #Tourfails — Leaders tours are a focal point of the media, and how a campaign projects its image and conveys its “message” to voters.  For that reason, there is a disproportionate focus on the logistics of these massive undertakings.  There’s the bus-in-plane-Wing-thing of the Liberals, the rent-a-crowds of the Tories, the photo-shopped mug of May, to name a few.
  • Candidate firings – Especially with the advent of social media, candidate eruptions (and calls to, or the actual act of, firing them) has become almost commonplace.  The issue is trying to limit the number of people who drop out after names are already set to be on ballots and candidates aren’t replaceable any longer.

What to watch for this week:

  • English-Language Leader’s Debates: This is like candy for political watchers (insert eye-roll and thoughts of “lame!” here…).  Truly, debates themselves do not change elections – despite how breathlessly some people may try and talk them up this way.  They can produce revealing or important moments, they can help journalists to shape the end-game narrative, but debates themselves do not change the course of elections.  They just provide potential fodder to unlock or unleash the forces of the electorate.  Distinction without a difference, maybe, but I’ve never been a fan of the knock-out punch potential of most political debates.
  • Leader’s Tour Itineraries: Where the leaders go in the last/dying days of a campaign does have a lot to say/show about where they believe they can make a difference.  Sometimes, this is purely defensive (“saving the furniture” in political parlance), but much of the time it’s meant to telegraph where and how they see the last days playing out.  You will also begin to hear the “end-game” messaging take over.  Elizabeth May has already started her “give me the balance of power in a minority government” message, meant to stanch the bleeding the Green vote intention seems to be having since early August (for more on good election polling, Nic Nanos has long been one of Canada’s pre-eminent, most reliable pollsters).  Expect to see Trudeau mostly in Quebec, the “905 belt” in Ontario, and BC – with obligatory stops in key ridings in other places to show his national reach and ambition (plus, he has two planes!).  Scheer will hit the 905 and some key BC ridings, and also the hoped-for pick-ups in New Brunswick and the Prairies.   Singh will be playing some defence in Quebec, some offence in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), and the Prairies/BC.  Elizabeth May will either make a choice to do some ‘silver buckshot’, and keep up the illusion of a truly national campaign (to increase her overall vote share and therefore argument to push for electoral reform in a minority government – more on this from me next week), or actually hone-in on the 6-9 ridings in which her party is competitive (which are actually spread in pockets across the country), in hopes of converting ~5 of those on E-day.  The BQ will try and follow-up on YFB’s (Yves-Francois Blanchet, their leader, for those of us in English Canada) strong TVA debate performance and really drive home their message in the Saguenay and regions where there’s a pre-disposition to vote BQ.  Mad Max?  Who cares. He’ll win his own seat if he’s having a good day on the 21st.
  • Single-digits-to-E-Day: Central campaigns (both nationally, and regionally) are shipping out their workers and staff to buttress and support key ridings this week.  They have begun to “staff down”, recognizing the shift to GOTV (Get Out The Vote) and the “ground-game”, as the ‘air war’ is partially narrative-driven from the media and the ad buys are all bought and paid for at this stage.  Advanced voting has started, so campaigns are trying to get their identified vote out early, so they can focus on the undecided or “leaning” folks.

What’s next

  • Minority government maneuvering (more on this from me next week).  Expect it to swing into full gear from the BQ, the NDP and the Greens – all looking to make a case for why they should have more seats to hold the balance of power with.  Both the Conservatives and the Liberals will gamely campaign for a majority, although at this stage that’s really only in reach for the Liberals with some amazing vote efficiency and a few bobbled opportunities by the Tories, as well as a few vote splits going their way.

That’s a La-da Change

It may not be flattering to compare a country to a car, but it’s hard to resist the symbolism the Lada holds when it comes to the Ukraine and her people.

A low-key, reliable car, with easy-to-replace parts, which takes-a-licking-and-keeps-on-ticking.  AsWikipedia put it, the keys to the Lada’s “…success were: competitive price, reliability, simple DIY-friendly mechanics and unpretentious functionality.” 

One of the many (many, many, many) Ladas I saw and snapped a pic of

On Easter Sunday, at least insofar as the ‘western calendar’ has it, a TV comedian was voted-in to the Presidency of this country of 42 million people. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyi is a man who rose to fame on the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars, and more recently has had a star turn on a TV show where an anti-corruption-crusading viral video vaults a school teacher into the Presidency of the country. 

Zelenskyi entered the Presidential race via TV announcement on New Year’s Eve, then continued to tour the country rotating between paid performances and free campaign rallies. 

The crush of pre-election polls following the first round of voting on March 31st, and he now goes from launching the third season of his hit show Servant of the People – literally playing the President on TV – and walks straight from the Green room into the House with Chimaeras (I kid you not, the Ukrainian President actually lives in a building of this name).

The House of Chimaeras

In winning the run-off, this Gen X thespian bested his opponent, the incumbent Petro Poroshenko (a Ukrainian Willy Wonka, whose oligarch-status is owed primarily to the Candy empire he built on his name “Roshen”).  Poroshenko has been in politics since 1998, serving as Foreign Minister and in a variety of other positions and portfolios, while running his many and sprawling family enterprises (which were reportedly put into blind trusts, although allegations of links remained during his tenure as President).

The Kyiv flagship of the Roshen chain

Poroshenko has been President since 2014, following the Maidan revolution that sent the Russian-stooge Victor Yanukovych packing to exile in Russia (and recently convicted in Ukrainian courts, in absentia, for high treason, with estimates of the embezzlement he and his cronies conducted ranging from $5 to $100 billion, with the General Prosecutor most recently pegging the number at about $40 billion USD). 

The main ‘house’ itself

Map of the grounds of Mezhyhirya

Yanukovych‘s former Mansion and abode, Mezhyhirya – now turned into a National Park – is a totem to corruption that is disgustingly cool to visit. See above a couple of photos from my visit earlier this month, not including photos of: the 18-hole golf course, Zoo, Helipad, Aviary, Antique Car Museum, Dining Hall, Fire Pit, Riverboat, Pony rides, etc, that were all a part of his living arrangements while President from 2010-14.

Although elected on a wave of ‘change’ in post-revolutionary times, Poroshenko seems to have traded in the mantle of change-maker for a reputation this time-out as the definition of “the problem”.

Embroiled in corruption scandals of his own it seems citizens have hardened in their belief that all those experienced or earnest politicians are ‘on the take’, so why not give the Comedian-who-plays-the-President a chance to take the reins? 

An online teaser for the show Servant of the People

This country literally buffers Europe from the Russian behemoth, and continues to fight against military aggression from its former politburo-in-chief in the Eastern Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, which border on Russia and are tied into the many issues surrounding the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula.

The fact that a free and fair election was conducted in this environment, and on this scale, is fairly remarkable.

The first round of voting, on March 31, had 39 candidates on the ballot, only 7 of whom got 1% or more of the vote. Some of them were “technical candidates” (what some might call ‘Kamikaze’ candidates in North America), with identical last names to certain front-runners.

Zelenskyi emerged victorious with 73.2% of votes cast in the second round/run-off, according to Ukrainian NGO OPORA’s parallel vote tabulation.  A resounding victory by any democratic standard.

The challenges confronting him, and the country, are legion. 

The average Ukrainian’s wage at this time last year was ~$430 CAD (~$323 USD).  If you lived in the capital city Kyiv, that average was $684 CAD ($513 USD) a month, where the cost of living is also higher.  In the rural areas, though it could vary widely, wages could be as low as $326 CAD ($245 USD) in the southwest of the country. A retiree/pensioner could make as little as $73 CAD ($55 USD) a month.Annual household income has dropped after the Maidan revolution of 2013-14 by more than 60%. It stands today at approximately the levels of 2005 by some estimates.  And it’s not that these wages are being spread across a greater population.  The population has been in decline since ~1994, and now stands around the level it was in the late 1960s.

Zelenskyi tapped into the frustration, with slogans like ‘We can’t wait another five years’ (the length of a presidential term).

And the downward pressures on wages are only one challenge.

Energy costs have spiraled for the average Ukrainian, in part as a result of IMF-imposed conditions on loans the country began to draw-on in the Fall of 2018, which now eat-up to half the comparatively-meagre incomes the country’s citizens live on in many cases.

Disappointment, disenfranchisement and other forms of disillusionment since the focal-point of the Maidan revolution in Independence Square in Kyiv in 2013-14 are legion, and the challenges many – from the tug of Europe, to the grip of Russia…and this is only the Presidential election.  The Parliamentary elections for the Verkhovna Rada will take place in October 2019.

Fittingly, this office building is on the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kyiv.

Corruption is still a central facet of many citizens’ view of how politics gets done, how people get rich, and how they are left on the sidelines.

During my time as an election observer both in the Fall of 2014, and during the first-round of the Presidential election in March 2019, I heard both hope and notes of resigned cynicism from many of the ‘ordinary’ Ukrainians I encountered.

My STO partner and I visiting a prison polling station on March 31st.

Ukraine remains in large measure a post-Soviet country, with all the scars – economic, social and otherwise – that were inflicted during and after that time.

There’s no question – leaders and leadership are important.  And now the Ukraine has a TV showman as its new frontman, a far stretch from how many Ukrainians view themselves.

This election resulted in the Lada swapping drivers.  It will be interesting to see what direction is charted (on the country’s notoriously pot-holey roads, and beyond) from here.

Maidan Square.

Back in the ‘Saddle’

For whatever combination of reasons, lame and legitimate, I haven’t written a blog post since early Summer 2017.

It’s not that I haven’t intended to. I have started writing posts en route back from some work, educational and volunteer trips to various places in the world, or across North America.

So much has happened in my life and work since 2017. Much of it worth writing about, although lots of the temporal impetus having now passed the increasingly-short attention spans we seem to have afflicting us these days for timeliness.m, it’s fallen by the wayside.

I will get back to blogging more regularly now; both as an outlet, as a form for connection and for sharing what will hopefully sometimes be interesting and topical.

I have the great good fortune of traveling for work and volunteer commitments, and our family makes a point of taking our kids to expose them to the world.  I am acutely aware that this is still a rare privilege, notwithstanding how “small” the world often feels.

Many of the places I’ve been in the last few years are back “in the news” these days for various and often dubious reasons. For example:

– South Africa has pivotal elections coming up in a month;

– New Zealand is still reeling from the Christchurch shootings;

– Northern Ireland and the UK are spinning dangerously close to revisiting some of the chords of The Troubles as “Brexit” swirls;

– Ukraine just voted in the first round of its presidential elections, handing a comedian (who plays the President on TV) a first round lead that doubles that of the incumbent president, amidst a backdrop of a simmering military conflict with Russia and torn between a Europe whose identity is shifting in uncomfortably murky directions and the old Soviet totems;

– Northern Canada grapples with climate change, food insecurity, energy prices, suicide, housing and many other compounding challenges;

– The U.S. grapples with a “very stable genius” running the country and the opening-up of fault lines ; and,

– Right here in Canada, well, there always seems to be a lot going on in our politics and society.

Expect me to offer my anecdotes, experiences and – perhaps most importantly – my learnings and overhearings from those living those various realities full-time.

I’ll start with what’s most fresh, the Ukraine, and work and wend my way through threads that feel or seem relevant or interesting.

If you think others might find interest in these musings and sharesies, please encourage them to sign up here: (and scroll to the bottom).


Minority Rules

This is the first general election in Nova Scotia that I have sat-out, or had no role other than as an interested citizen, in nearly twenty years. Even as we age, we never stop having new experiences, I guess.

As I’ve listened to the analysis, and public domain opinion polls reporting a likely minority government outcome in NS – and the news out of British Columbia in the last 36 hours on the newly-minted minority-government-to-be – my thoughts lept back a decade.

While I was working for the then-Opposition leader, I decided to do my Master of Arts in Political Science, part-time. I chipped away at it over a few years, and when it came time to do my thesis, I chose to do an analysis of “What Makes Minority Government Work”, drawing lessons from the 1998-99 and 2003-06 minority governments in NS.

It wasn’t only a “thing” in NS at the time. One also existed Federally, and there were three other provinces with minority governments. It felt a little like the equivalent of a political plague no sitting government wanted to catch.

Here are the five factors I drew out, from interviews with six former party leaders and their senior staff that influence whether a minority government can be made to work.

1. How the minority came to be.

There’s that old aphorism – where you’re going in life depends on where you came from. In this case, the genesis of the government is important to its outlook – is it a party dropping from majority to minority, and on political life support…or another party joyously forming a new government? Do the parties accept/embrace the legitimacy of the result? Do they have (and did they have the foresight to keep?) experienced staff? How deep is the talent pool in their caucus.

2. What the parties perceive to be the value of cooperation.

This is a question of both form and function. Cooperating is one thing, but whether that is through a formal deal or on an issue-by-issue basis matters, because the ink is barely dry on any agreement before “events my friend, events”, intervene. The relative comfort-level of each of the participating parties is important, too. Will the governing party act like they own the place, or be gracious hosts who are willing and able to share credit and bite their tongue? And how will voters treat either obstreperous or magnanimous behavior among the parties/leaders.

3. The state of existing inter-party dynamics.

The parties have to be able to speak a common language; this can’t be a Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars moment. So do they have established relationships of trust and/or respect? Are their friendships that can be leveraged? Does the supporting party believe they will be sidelined or treated as a junior partner? What are the shared – and/or opposing – policy and/or political interests?

4. The tolerance for the minority’s existence/continuation by the caucus’, parties and the public.

These three distinct but important groups each have different – and often conflicting – views that bear on the outcome of any minority. Political caucus’ are notoriously fickle, and not only have to juggle job security considerations, but are also the “front-line” in receiving public feedback; whether they live in the oblivious ‘bubble’ or the real world is crucial. The party apparatus of each major party is primarily concerned with the practical – can we afford to run a competitive general election campaign, do we have the infrastructure and people in place, etc. And the public, who public opinion says have been generally supportive of minority governments in Canada over time, basically expect people to act like grown-ups and cooperate.

5. The effect of agency (e.g. the players/personalities).

The personalities of the leaders are key. How new or experienced they are matters, and what role(s) they have played in the past helps prepare them for the work of a minority. Who leaders surround themselves with is also highly influential. The reality is that people are people, and people run governments. A minority government can feel a bit like walking around tightly holding political/policy grenades with the pin pulled. In reality, it should be treated more like a sheet of ice in Winter – slips and falls happen, but if you tread carefully and deliberately, crossing is fairly straightforward. Temperament, experience and wisdom play as great a role as anxiety, impatience and arrogance.

Let’s be clear – there are myriad factors about how things can work, for how long…and why, or why not. The above, however, holds true today as both a framework to understand and predict how workable a minority will or could be today, particularly in Nova Scotia.

These factors vary from the very practical – such as weekly meetings of all three leaders’ Chiefs of Staff, operating under a ‘no surprises’ dictum when it comes to government policy. To the very human – not making threats you are not prepared, or that it is not advisable, to follow through on. The annals of legislative politics are littered with hot-headed reactions and statements, and bluster. These have no functional place in a minority government.

In NS one of the key factors folks cited in the 2003-06 minority work was that John Hamm was the first – and at that point, only – party leader to have held every one of the three leadership roles in the Legislature (Leader of the Third Party, Leader of the Official Opposition, and Premier). Hamm himself, and his former Chief of Staff Jamie Baillie, both cited this in interviews as a factor in the perspective and demeanour in leading a minority government from 2003-06.

Fun fact – there is one other party leader returned to this new Legislature who holds the same distinction as John Hamm did, having served in all three leadership roles: Stephen McNeil.

And, who is the leader of the Official Opposition? That same former Chief of Staff to John Hamm, Jamie Baillie – a person who has held two of those three roles (so far…?), and who was credited with helping run an effective minority from 2003-06.

So what do the days to come hold?   Lots and lots of grand statements of transparent and cooperative intent, and closed-door strategy sessions.  Lots of media speculation and navel-gazing.

One safe prediction – though – they don’t involve another election anytime soon.