PM Question Period

The latest edition of Power and Influence magazine is out, you can get a free online copy here. 

My column looking at the potential for a British style, Prime Ministers Question Period is on page 13. Click on the link, fill out the form and you will have an online version.


It's About Food!

Back on January 14th, I wrote about the cost of cauliflower and how this could negatively impact Trudeau and the Liberal government. At that time, although there may have been others, I had only seen one story on that subject. Well, since my post, the media have discovered cauliflower and the story has exploded onto the internet, in the print media and on TV. Even the New York Times has a story today on the cost of cauliflower in Canada.

The cost of food is a real issue for Canadians, especially seniors on a fixed income as well as low income Canadians. Many seniors barely get by; the rising cost of food (and electricity in Ontario) is increasing their hardship. On a daily basis all of the experts are telling Canadians that the government must take urgent action. Instead we had the Prime Minister go on a luxury vacation and now he is off to Switzerland, hobnobbing with the rich and famous (people who couldn’t tell you the cost of an item in a grocery store).

Perhaps the opposition parties should wake up to a missed opportunity.

While the Conservatives are fixated on CF-18s and punishing Iran, perhaps they are missing an issue that every single voter understands. Instead of trying to justify an issue that Canadians have become largely tuned out from, concentrate on one that we all get IE grocery stores are emptying our wallets.

They should be collecting letters from seniors and Canadians all across the country who are suffering while the Liberals stall on urgent action to get our economy moving again.

They should be ready on Monday to read those letters into the record in Question Period and link those letters to the lack of action from the Prime Minister. It is a simple tactic that works and drives home the point. Interview seniors, ask them how much they have had to cut back, ask them what per cent of their pension cheque now goes just to feeding themselves. There are any number of ways to push this issue and those stories out into social media and highlight this issue as other main stream media pick it up.

Until the dollar rebounds and the economy receives the emergency helps it needs, the Liberals and Trudeau are very vulnerable on this issue. The least that the opposition can do is to throw this issue into their mix of questions in the upcoming Question Period.

It is no longer just about the middle class. Any tax relief that Trudeau gave them has already disappeared while those he supposedly wanted to help were waiting in line to pay for their groceries. It is not about the middle class now; it is about the cost of affordable food.


Bring the House Back Early

How many times did we hear the media complain that the Conservatives used talk points all the time, often reading them from prepared scripts? Quite frankly we all know that it was done so that a minister could duck hard questions whether in Question Period or on the road.

We are now starting to see the Liberals doing the same thing. When asked about the need to get our downward spiraling economy moving, Trudeau’s stock answer was “We are going to do this right. We are going to do this responsibly.” (CTV News, January 13, 2016).

Isn’t that a profound answer to a serious question? The only thing lacking was a piece of paper while he read the answer. For the party that promised to do things differently it is much of the same.

So far we haven’t seen anything concrete from the government to address the sinking dollar or any announcement on immediate steps they plan to take to get the economy moving. Where are the opposition parties on this? It might still be a break week for them, but isn’t it about time they got in on the action here.

How about asking the Prime Minister to take a break from posing for selfies and bring the House back next week (a week early) to address this issue? If brought back Monday of next week, the Finance Committee can be put in place and start consultations now, not weeks later. Instead the Conservatives are asking the government to release a report on a deal that the Liberals have already said they would keep and not cancel.

Bringing the House back early would provide an opportunity for both the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister to be held accountable in the House. Let them explain what steps they have already taken, will take and when etc. Remember this is the government that promised Canadians that if elected they would be open and accountable. So bring the House back early and answer some hard questions.

Our sinking economy is hurting Canadians. There was a lot of ballyhoo about how Trudeau was helping middle class Canadians, well I have news for him- while he takes selfies, the middle-class as well as lower income earners are taking a hammering with the low Canadian dollar and stagnating economy. Every day that we go to the grocery store our basic basket of goods is costing us a lot more. If you want to eat healthy and have the required servings of fruits and vegetables, any tax break that Trudeau gave us was spent weeks ago.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives in their paper “Behind the Numbers” of December 2015 put the average saving from Trudeau’s tax cuts for lower middle class families at $3-$55 and upper middle class families between $134 and $220. I have news for Mr. Trudeau; the cost of food has already eaten up any tax break most Canadians received from him.

When was the last time Mr. Trudeau went shopping in a grocery store and looked at the prices for fresh produce?

The cost of food has the potential to become a major political issue for the Liberals. Just like a $16 glass of orange juice resonated with Canadians; so does paying $6-8 for cauliflower. What matters to Canadians is putting food on the table, not platitudes or talk points designed to avoid answering a question or hearing from the Prime Minister that they will get it right sometime in the future.

It is time to bring the House back and give Canadians some answers.


Looking ahead (Part 3): The Conservatives in 2016

The Conservatives begin 2016 in a very different place from where they have been for the last 10 years. Defeats are never fun, but they offer the Conservatives a chance to rejuvenate, rebuild and rededicate themselves to promoting Canadian Conservative values. Forget about American, Australian and British values, focus on Canadian values. Defeat offers a chance to reconnect with Canadians, with supporters and with those that drifted or were tossed away over the last 10 years.

The first step is stop the moaning and groaning about losing. Get over it. It happened now move on and build the best damn opposition party we have seen. Every party member, every voter, every reporter has an opinion on why we lost. No amount of discussion and hand-wringing will change their minds, so it is now time to look ahead. You have just four years to complete the cycle from opposition party to government-in-waiting and that is not as much time as one might think.

Step two is a house cleaning. Opposition demands a very different skill set from government. Top notch government staffers do not necessarily make good opposition staffers. A different mindset is needed, a different work ethic, a different approach to doing politics, including a realization that the days of top government salaries are a thing of the past. Attracting the best with a lot less to offer them is essential. Talk to those who have been there before. Yaroslav Baran for instance had some excellent comments in the media the other day. See if there are any former staff who will come back. If necessary bring in someone who will be impartial and do the house cleaning for you.

This will mean tough decisions as to who is kept and who is let go. Every person has to be evaluated and the criteria has to be how good is their opposition mind set and what skills do they bring to opposition. Can they look at an issue and see how to develop it into not just one or two days in Question Period, but exploit it. Can they even recognize an issue to develop?

You don’t need a research staff full of policy wonks that is now the task of your critics. The critics will be on the front lines meeting people, talking to experts, attending committee. It is now up to the critics to hire the right staff for their MPs office. They can’t rely on others (such as the research group or the OLO) to do their homework for them. They don’t need speech writers; they can write their own or have someone on their MP staff write speeches for them.

Step three has already been partially completed IE. talk to those who have been there before. Ambrose has already spoken to former Conservative leaders and received advice from them, part of which was to focus on Question Period. In his prime, Joe Clark was one of the best opposition questioners the House of Commons has seen. Mulroney can offer advice on a wide range of issues including the strategy for going forward. Ambrose needs to soak up all of the advice, decide what she wants to do and just go for it.

By now the budget should have been finalized and staff in place. Opposition researchers should already be looking at every new minister and Liberal promises. They should already have identified weaknesses and items or ministers to attack.

Step four, stop obsessing over Trudeau. He beat you, move on. There is no point in thinking you are going to take him down any time soon. Too many in the media are still wrapped up in him, his family and his “sunny way” approach. That will change, but it takes time. You have to play the long game.

Watch for issues that allow you to chip away at his image, at his leadership and his tenure as Prime Minister. Chip away at his credibility by targeting his ministers. He appointed them, their performance reflects on him.

We have already seen that touch of Liberal arrogance on the democratic reform front, the touch of entitlement with the nanny issue, and the first incompetence on the refugee issue with their constantly changing story line. For those that were around back then, we can remember the original Trudeau mania and how it culminated a few years later in the Salmon Arm salute. It takes time for a leader to fall from grace, play the long game.

Ambrose needs to stop talking about being nice to potential leadership candidates. It is impossible to say that you will promote them in Question Period or in the House or that you will give them lots of exposure because at this point we don’t know who they will be. There could be candidates who are not part of the caucus and Ambrose risks being accused of offering caucus members an unfair advantage. Better to wait and see the final list and in the meantime prepare for a Liberal type scenario where leadership candidates who are critics have to resign from the their critics responsibilities.

That will mean losing some on your front benches. Who will replace them? Begin cycling new MPs through Question Period, looking for those who have a natural ability as questioners and who are able to handle the media as well. Because for all those months that the leadership contest will be on, these new MPs will be the face of the party four days a week in the House.

Last but not least, step five is have fun again. Much of the fun side of the political process went out the door ten years ago. Bring it back. I spent ten years in Opposition, it is an exciting place to be. It is challenging but also very rewarding. Do your job, do it well and offer Canadians a different option to what they have now.



Looking Ahead (Part 2): The NDP in 2016

This will prove an interesting year for the NDP as they transition from Official Opposition status to third party status. They will be functioning with fewer MPs, fewer staff and fewer resources. Invariably many of your best staff leave after a defeat and seek new challenges. It is not a fun place to be. Add in the quiet behind the scenes finger pointing that invariably follows a defeat such as theirs and anything can happen.

You have to be pretty naive to believe their talk points that everything is good and that they are solidly behind their leader and of course he intends to lead them into the next election four years from now.

Politics comes down to a blood sport where what matters is winning. Mulcair had them there; right on the edge and then the wheels came off the bus. Internally (caucus and defeated MPS) and externally (with volunteers and supporters) the blame game will be in full swing, even if it is only done quietly and not in the public arena.

The NDP caucus and the party rank and file have to decide at their upcoming convention (leadership review included) if they want Mulcair in command four years from now? Will a threshold of 50+1 be that difficult a threshold to reach to force a leadership vote when one considers the level of disappointment that arises from almost being the government to a fall to a distant third place finish?

Having been a member of Jean Charest’s government, Mulcair understands full well what happens when the finger of blame points at the leader and caucus members think they could have done a better job, especially when they prefer that the leader depart. Does he want to spend not only the next few months, but the next four years looking over his shoulder?

Part of the problem facing the NDP is that they don’t know who the next Conservative leader will be. Mulcair is in his sixties, depending on what the Conservatives do, we could be facing a generational change in politics.

How does Mulcair keep his job? Mulcair will have to shine in Question Period while crossing the country to network and reassure party supporters. This alone is tiring and a major distraction for any leader.

Will his hard adversarial style of questioning work in our new “Sunny Days” Parliament? It probably can as we have seen how quickly the Liberals forgot some of their own promises about having a more collegial House of Commons. Question Period is designed to be adversarial and if politely asking for answers doesn’t get them, the rhetoric ramps up.

Mulcair still has lots of opportunity to take Trudeau on one and one in QP, providing of course that the NDP doesn’t allow the Trudeau team to bring in a Westminster style Prime Minister’s question period which is held just one day a week. If that happens his opportunity to take Trudeau on face to face is all but lost.

The NDP will also be faced with the task of redefining themselves. The Trudeau Liberals have successfully moved into much of the space traditionally occupied by the NDP. Does the NDP move further left with the hope that they can draw off some of the progressives who will inevitably become disillusioned by the Liberals failure to keep their election promises? They have to be able to show how they are different from the Liberals. Just how are they planning to do this?

Mulcair’s challenge will be to rebuild the parliamentary caucus into a formidable opposition party and reenergize it while at the same time he will have to be careful not to give potential challengers too much freedom or too high a profile. It is a fine balancing act. I expect that we will see him in a lot of scrums as he tries to keep his profile as high as possible in the next few months.

Once the leadership review and convention is over, the NDP will have plenty of time to focus on policies and election preparation. In the meantime though, the leadership issue will be a major distraction for them, even if they try to tell us that it is “sunny days” inside the NDP caucus and party.