Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 10 Canadian News Stories of 2008

Every year has its big stories, but this year had many that I think Canadians will still be talking about years from now. You may not agree with the top 10 Canadian stories I’ve chosen, but it’s hard to say each of these weren’t major stories when they hit and that most of these don’t still resonate. I’ve reflected on each one (some “reflections” I guess could be posts in themselves) and they are listed in rough chronological order rather than importance.

1) Chuck Cadman Scandal: You don’t hear about it as much now, but you can’t say it’s not huge news when you hear allegations (which seem to be backed up on tape) that the Conservatives tried to literally bribe an MP to vote with them. And don’t forget Harper’s libel case against the Liberals over this is still before the courts, but given how that’s fared of late I’m thinking Harper’s hoping we do forget about that one.

2) In and Out Scandal: The RCMP raiding the governing party HQ and the ensuing frantic (and failed) attempt to control the media spin over the Conservatives apparent over-spending and shady dealings with local ridings during the 2006 election was certainly a sight to see. Conservatives are STILL spending millions fighting this in court so obviously they realize how bad it will reflect on them when Elections Canada does finally rule officially AGAINST them

3) Maxime Bernier's Bungled Foreign Affairs Tenure: I’m someone who believes it’s extremely important for Canada to maintain a positive reputation in the world and so it’s big news to me that this year we came to fully realize that Stephen Harper had appointed among the worst (if not the worst) foreign affairs ministers in Canadian history. From not knowing who the President of Haiti was, to blowing private negotiations to get a troublesome Afghan governor to step down, to promising C-17s that didn’t exist for deployment, it was clear the guy was just not up to the job. Amazingly enough it took him leaving confidential documents at his girlfriend’s place to bring him down, but even then Harper wouldn’t fire him, Bernier instead resigned. This was also the first and only cabinet resignation I believe we’ve seen so far from this government. That’s not a good thing given how many of Harper’s ministers have done things that should have warranted their dismissal.

4) The Green Shift: Like it or hate it, it was the most bold policy proposal of the year. Sadly the Conservatives AND NDP smeared it with disinformation and the Liberals were unable to successfully combat the onslaught. I’ve still yet to hear one person credibly argue how a cap-and-trade system would be a superior approach to tax shifting for reducing GHG emissions over the next several years when a cap-and-trade system could easily end up being (in the words of Andrew Coyne) "just as costly...twice as complicated… and probably half as effective (as a carbon tax)" and when we know that Europe has had a terrible time getting cap-and-trade off the ground and that the Western Climate Initiative here in North America isn’t scheduled to start till 2012. Yet as of this time an exclusively cap-and-trade approach seems to be the approach all parties (except the Greens) now want us to head in.

I HOPE the Liberals show some courage again and revive the Green Shift policy in a different more saleable form down the line (certainly the Green Shift policy on the whole could stand for some tweaking). After all it was originally Michael Ignatieff’s idea when he was the only leadership candidate in 2006 arguing for it. I understand how given the results of the last election he doesn’t want to touch a tax shift with a ten foot pole and I guess I can’t blame him if he doesn’t go back to it, but to date I’ve seen ZERO evidence in polling or anything that Canadians were voting against us SOLELY BECAUSE of the Green Shift. Is there really more than 1-2% of Canadians who would have said “I definitely would have voted Liberal but didn’t only because they were proposing a carbon tax”?

I think it’s foolish to boil down the election loss to that policy (or just who our leader was for that matter) when people could have voted against us for literally dozens of different reasons (I wouldn't be surprised if some people actually went to the polls thinking the Liberals were going to ban the bible or some other crazy nonsense perpetrated by Conservatives) and such a simplistic view allows us to learn little. I think we lost much more so due to weaker organization and GOTV efforts, the smearing of Stéphane Dion with millions of dollars in ads that we were unable to combat (due to our weaker fundraising abilities) and Harper successfully (falsely) portraying the Liberal platform as planning to spend tens of billions more than was available in the treasury (e.g., the infrastructure policy was portrayed as $70 billion over the short-term rather than over 10 years).

I hope Ignatieff thinks long and hard about what’s best for the country in the long-term, because the environment may not be top of mind for Canadians now but in 2-3 years it will definitely be back and I fear cap-and-trade alone simply won't be sufficient to make the greenhouse gas reductions we need to make and to avoid being seen as a laggard in the world eye on this issue.

Liberals ought to take a look at Norway, an oil-producing nation with HIGHER GDP per-capita (highest in the world right now), economic productivity and living standards than us and yet who have a dreaded carbon tax (though the Liberal Green Shift was actually a superior approach to what Norway put in place as I believe they had too many exemptions). We can catch up to them or we can fall further behind (the environment isn’t the only issue we can look to Norway on either).

If we KNOW the Green Shift (or an improved adaptation of it) is the best approach for the environment (combined in time with cap-and-trade), how can we as the “natural governing party” just abandon it completely just because of one election? If we used one election as the basis for whether to discard different policies then that really sets a bad precedent for any party to be bold. Trudeau discussed implementing a new Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1979 and lost, it’s a good thing we didn’t abandon it in the next election. I hope we don’t so easily discard tax shifting once and for all.

But alas, I feel this little tirade will fall on deaf ears and tax shifting will not be proposed again by any major party in Canada for a long time to come…So then on to the next news story of the year….

5) 2008 Federal Election: I honestly believe that if the election were held a week before (when polls had it at 33 Cons -30 Libs) or a week after (when Nanos again had it 32 Cons – 30 Libs) October 14 the result would have been dramatically different, but Stephen Harper called the election for when he did for a reason and it paid off. He wanted to avoid by-elections losses while having an e-day before the economic downturn he knew and before Obama could be elected in the US. Harper was clearly going to lose all 4 by-elections (and from what I heard on the ground we were on the verge of winning St. Lambert on the eve of Sept. 8) and he waited till the very last day before the by-elections so he could run ads unopposed outside the writ (to do an end run around election spending limits), wasting the maximum amount of public money possible. That he could do that AND break his promise not to call an election before October 2009 and almost not even release a platform and not be punished at the polls for any of that still bothers me.

As for the campaign itself, it started off slow for us, but I believe we did eventually hit our stride and our platform had the right priorities (I’ve still yet to hear a single Liberal state any specific policy aside from the Green Shift that we shouldn’t keep in the next platform), but perhaps we promised too much (in $ terms at least) or perhaps we didn’t communicate well enough what we were going to do. As I said above on the Green Shift, it’s simplistic to blame that for our loss or to blame just Stéphane Dion. In the debates everyone praised his performances and to me that still represents the real Dion, but in the end he could not overcome the negative caricatures (bought my an unprecedented character assasination campaign by the Cons) that even he recognized had been cemented in Canadians’ minds. That certainly hurt us, but what hurt us more was being outmatched in organizational and GOTV efforts and simply not being in play in many less ridings than the Conservatives. We have a lot of work to do to fix that in time for the next election (I’ll propose some more thoughts on how to do that in the new year). Apart from that, I think a lot of voters by the time e-day arrived were just looking for a steady hand to manage the economy and a plurality for whatever reason thought that would be Stephen Harper. I’m sure he was helped by the strong final weekend he had and the major market rallies that occurred on the final two days of the campaign.

Even so, a MAJORITY voted against Harper and if we had a system of proportional representation then the results would have translated into the Liberals, NDP and Greens having a majority of seats between them without needing any support from the Bloc to have formed a coalition. Only the Conservatives and the Bloc won a greater percentage of seats than their percent of the popular vote and that’s the second election in a row that’s happened. I hope the time will have finally come for the majority of Liberals to realize that electoral reform is not only the right thing to do but is also in our own party’s interests (I’ll also have more to say about that in the new year).

6) The Economic Crisis: It’s not quite true that no one saw an economic crisis coming (in fact I give Garth Turner credit for making dire predictions well before the bottom fell out on the market), but I think the magnitude of it has taken just about everyone by surprise. If you had said a year ago that Canada would have a $30 Billion deficit in 2009 and that all parties would agree that a fiscal stimulus package getting us to that point would be necessary (not forgetting the fact though that if it weren’t for Harper’s reckless GST cuts the prospective deficit would be MUCH smaller) you’d have been called crazy. Thankfully previous Liberal governments ensured that our banking system was one of the most solid in the world and Stephen Harper has a minority or else Canada would be in a HUGE amount of trouble that might take a decade or more to get out of. Liberals can’t let Canadians forget that the Harper Conservatives brought in 40 year mortgages and other reckless practices (before abandoning them when it was clear how damaging they were) that were the original source of the financial meltdown in the U.S. that dominoed into a global economic crisis and we can't let them forget either how recklessly Harper and Flaherty and Co. frittered away a strong surplus that would be have been enormously useful at a time like this.

These guys don’t know how to manage the economy and the evidence is overwhelming, we just have to make sure Canadians understand just how bad they have been and how disastrous it would be if they got a majority.

7) Fiscal Update/The Liberal-NDP Coalition: Stephen Harper came into Parliament enjoying the good will of the opposition parties. Many people were predicting he would likely get to govern until at least 2010. It’s his fault alone that he squandered that and now has the lowest ratings for “Best PM” than he’s ever had. The fiscal update had no solutions for the economic crisis, proposed bizarre (e.g., a firesale of public assets in a horrible market) and offensive (e.g., weakening pay equity and banning public strikes right after a collective bargaining deal was reached) policies while having the central goal of crushing the Conservatives political opposition through the elimination of the per vote subsidy.

Had the coalition not come about I have no doubt in my mind Harper would have dug in his heels on the update, as without a coalition, voting down the update would have meant an election that the opposition parties weren’t prepared to face. In all likelihood with no coalition one of the opposition parties would have been very likely to cave. Thankfully, because of the deal Dion negotiated with Layton, Stephen Harper had to shelve every negative aspect of that update. But for putting it forth in the midst of a crisis and at a time when the opposition was willing to work with him, Stephen Harper should have lost power. The coalition in turn would definitely have brought in a strong and popular budget by now instead of us having to be the last western country to bring in fiscal stimulus to revive our economy. I’m confident that even though they would have started with only about 40%-45% public support (which is still more than Stephen Harper enjoyed) their policies would have proved popular over the year ahead. Unfortunately, the Governor General was put in the unprecedented situation of being asked to allow Harper to dodge the will of Parliament. Stephen Harper’s head would have exploded if Paul Martin had tried the same thing, but I don’t think there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind now that he will do anything to retain his hold on power.

Now the coalition looks unlikely to happen because Stephen Harper’s scare tactics and disinformation have knocked its popularity down to below what we would have hoped for (though I think it’s disingenuous of this Globe article to call 40%-45% support for the coalition “widely unpopular” without also calling Stephen Harper “widely unpopular” after receiving only 38% support in the last election) and because Harper now desperately wants to survive past January so he can regoup without the threat of any looming coalition (as that threat can't really exist past February).

Though I do hope that if Stephen Harper doesn’t take dramatic steps to show he’s changed (that go beyond just putting out a strong budget) that those worried about voting him down realize that we may live to regret allowing him to live another day and that the Liberals, NDP and Bloc decide to end his career right at budget time in January. If the Harper Conservatives won’t be a responsible government in the worst times our country has faced in decades then there is ample justification for the coalition taking on that role instead and every single precedent that exists would compel the Governor General to allow that.

8) Provincial elections in Alberta and Quebec: The status quo prevailed in Alberta, but it was definitely surprising and disappointing (I’m sure all the more so for any Liberals living in Alberta) just how resounding Ed Stelmach’s victory was. Now that oil is plummeting to lows not seen in years and it seems like Stelmch spent the cupboard and never planned for something like this, I wonder if Albertans will finally see that perhaps they aren’t being best served by Conservative government after all. I’m sure somehow all the problems Alberta is facing for low oil prices will be blamed in Trudeau somehow.

As for Quebec, Jean Charest completed his political comeback with a majority, but Stephen Harper’s Quebec/separatist bashing the final week of the campaign almost blew it for him and definitely has helped revive PQ fortunes. Had Charest only won a minority I think his career in Quebec would have been over (since the only reason he called an early election was to win a majority) and I wonder if he wouldn’t have tried to go back to Ottawa to end Stephen Harper’s. The things will never know since a majority is a majority and I’m guessing Charest will retire at the end of his term (has any Premier ever won 4 consecutive terms in Quebec?), but I won’t be surprised if he tries some bold initiatives in next 4 years to cement his legacy.

9) New Liberal Leader: I was I was sad to see Stephane Dion go and not got the second chance every one of our other past leaders received, but I do believe he played important positive role as our leader and even as interim leader with the creation of the coalition. I think he would have made an excellent PM and still could have grown into the job of party leader (as was evident in the last half of the campaign) , but as he recognized the Conservatives so badly tarnished him that it would been very difficult to reverse that impresssion and thus he felt the mountain would be too high to climb.

While the ensuing Liberal leadership race was much shorter than expected and cut out what likely would have been some valuable debates, Liberals are now able to turn their guns away from each other and squarely on Stephen Harper MUCH sooner than expected.

10) Senate Patronage Spree: Ordinarily Senate appointments by a PM are hardly big news, but that changes when it’s done by a man who’s spent a lifetime campaigning against Senate patronage and who just shut down Parliament to avoid a confidence vote and when it also happens to also be the largest number of appointments in a single day. There being no gender or partisan balance in these appointments and the overwhelming number of hardcore party loyalists being appointed just made all the more cringe inducing. Whether the galling nature of these appointments will turn public opinion against him remains to be seen, but it was a pretty dramatic example of Harper will abandon any principle to hold on to power and use all the perks that come along with it.

Honourable mention: The inevitable end of John Tory’s leadership of the Ontario PC Party, though it comes a lot later than I, and the poll I conducted, had predicted. But since it’s not official yet, technically it can be a story for 2009. My endorsement for their leader still has not changed though: Randy Hillier all the way! And here’s hoping Baird, Flaherty, Clement and/or Van Loan (the more of them better) also race back to try to grab the Ontario PC Party brass ring as well - they will be doing their country a HUGE favour by leaving Ottawa for Queen’s Park and going back to the opposition benches where they belong!

World News Note: Obviously the biggest worldwide story (that eclipsed all Canadian stories) was the was the 2008 Presidential Election and the election of Barack Obama as President, but Canadian politics is still where my heart is so that’s what I stuck to in this list just like I did last year.

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Ken S from Ramara Tsp., Ontario said...

I fear the PM manipulating the GG into dissolving Parliament and forcing an election, rather than passing power to the Coalition. Talks need to start now within the EDA's pledging to run just a single Coalition Candidate against the CPC. If the Left is again fragmented, Harper will get his majority and a free hand to run this country. This is the dilemma of the Coalition! Unite or Perish on perpetual opposition!

Anonymous said...

hey - your blue on black headlines are almost unreadable

ml johnstone said...


Anonymous said...

Well done, you summed it up but I feel the Taser incident should have been recognized. Few flaws but all in all, you did your research bud ;)