Archives for category: Communications

Image: Torontoist.com

It was while I was bailing out the back yard that I realized that this was quite a rainstorm. Like a lot of people, I was neither expecting nor prepared for the amount of rain we got and what it did to Toronto.

I see the storm as one of those events that makes us realize we are now firmly in a new weather paradigm – one that is shaped by climate change.

For years, I worked in the sustainable energy sector. Occasionally, I would meet someone who insisted that all the evidence on climate change wasn’t in and that there’s not much we can do about the weather in any case. I don’t see much point in debating the science with someone like that, but this week’s storm made me think about what happens even after we acknowledge climate change.

Acceptance is one thing, but action is another. And even if we still can’t put a price on carbon and manage to find ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, there is still the issue of how to deal with what we face right now. If you thought the storms of the past while (Calgary, Toronto) are outliers, think again. In fact, the city’s Parks and Environment Committee already considered this question, and came up with a report that says our city’s infrastructure is not adequate for Toronto’s new weather paradigm. By the way, the chair of that committee was Councillor Norm Kelly, who suggested we not make a big deal about it, since climate change is still “contentious.” I wonder if Norm’s opinion is shifting after the rainiest day in the city’s recorded history.

We should not balk at answering the hard questions about how we now understand the impact of global warming and extreme weather and our state of preparedness. Part of this is about looking at how we build and develop our city and what mitigation measures we can integrate to protect us and our infrastructure from flooding. Another part is about ensuring the city’s entire ecosystem can absorb water, or simply have it run off concrete and asphalt and flood our basements, backyards, subways, underpasses, hydro system and major highways.

A third part is about how we understand weather forecasts, what they mean and how they impact our decision-making. Monday’s deluge was an excellent example of the entire city getting caught in the rain. Somewhere between the meteorological scientists at Environment Canada and the weather reports you get, something is lost.

I could go on about this, but I would just be getting in the way of you reading this excellent blog post by The Grid’s Ed Keenan about this exact topic.

The storm revealed a lot about how unprepared we are, as individuals and as a city. It almost makes the transit debate looks minor.

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Yesterday’s news about evidence disclosed by the RCMP into Mike Duffy’s expenses has raised some sharp questions about both the character of some key players and about Duffy’s strange hold over some high-ranking politicos.

Image: Cbc.ca

I still cannot understand how on earth Duffy, despite decades as a highly-paid broadcaster (with pensions), could successfully sell the line that he couldn’t come up with any money? Was Old Duff’s confusion and despair so overwhelming that the Conservative Fund and then former PMO chief of staff Nigel Wright thought it was possible Duffy couldn’t afford to pay back what he had taken in improper expenses? Is Duffy some sort of master salesman? The Canadian political version of Dale Carnegie?

Then, despite being told repeatedly that Wright is a stand-up guy, we learn that he was willing to write a cheque to essentially cover up Duffy’s expenses mess. He wanted to save taxpayers from being on the hook, according to his lawyers.

Wright will have to explain how he thought that paying Duffy’s debt and “saving taxpayers’ money” was not only the correct thing to do, but also the kind of action that would work to restore the public’s trust in politicians and teach Old Duff a lesson about cheating on his expenses.

But Wright was only put in this position after the Conservative Fund decided that it could not cover Duffy’s debt.

So, for Conservative Fund boss Senator Irving Gerstein, there are questions about why it’s ok to use taxpayer-subsidized political funds to bail out Duffy his bogus expenses. There’s also a question about why, having already crossed that line, he thought that $30,000 was ok, but $90,000 was too much. Is there perhaps some financial threshold that the Fund uses as a moral yardstick?

And one last question for both Mike Duffy and Pam Wallin: In their decades of working in journalism and filing expense claims, when did they get so lazy or so greedy that they stopped taking responsibility for how they spend someone else’s money?

I also have some questions for myself. As a former journalist, I’m worried I might have the same sort of condition that affected Duffy and Wallin. So I’m checking for the following symptoms:

  • Trying to squeeze as much money out of expenses as possible?
  • Trying to dismiss any concerns about whether the expenses were appropriate?
  • Blaming the rules?
  • Pretending to be contrite?
  • Blaming staff?

One must be vigilant, after all.

The pessimist in me has accepted that the video will never come out and that Rob Ford isn’t going anywhere. So, my thoughts naturally turn to the next election; who will run against the incumbent and how Toronto’s political organizers are starting the process of assembling a campaign to take on Rob Ford. I’m thinking I want to see more media coverage that looks past Crackgate (which has spurred some of the best journalism in recent years) and to the next election. And I figure I can’t be alone.

I was talking to a friend about this on Sunday; we were discussing how easy it would be to split the progressive vote among several candidates and therefore allow Ford to win again. We figured many Torontonians are looking past the crack video story and hoping – since Ford isn’t giving up office and has left no doubt he will run again – that some media will start to focus on the next election and particularly the effort to unseat Ford, with his seemingly large and unmovable support. The next election is in 16 months — not a ton of time, politically-speaking.

I’m interested in hearing about the conversation in political circles on whether the imperative to pick one progressive candidate to run against Ford will trump the individual ambition of a handful of potential candidates. I’m equally interested in learning about any efforts to mobilize the enormous potential anti-Ford vote. Who is looking to get out new voters? Who is looking to organize the young, the cyclists, the hipsters, the downtown condo dwellers, the anti-crack voters, the ashamed, the embarrassed and even the cynics?

Yes, much of this discussion is taking place behind closed doors. But, has there ever been a situation like this? And given that the business of the city has slowed down somewhat, what better time to turn our attention to what would be possible without a hamstrung mayor?

So I’m hoping to soon see more stories that look past the current issues and toward the next election.

Because as a voter and news consumer, this is what I want to know.

Image: Radio-Canada

Anyone interested in how to ruin a major brand-related announcement should study how Radio-Canada launched Ici and the immediate fallout. Heritage Minister James Moore appears to be quite irritated by the whole thing. It got loads of negative media coverage, including this editorial. It caused many supporters of public broadcasting in Canada to doubt the credibility of CBC/Radio-Canada and of its senior management. Not exactly the impact Ici’s creators were hoping for.

From a communications perspective, here are five questions those managers should have asked before the Ici launch:

  1. Stepping back from the details of the Ici brand, ask yourselves: Do we fully understand the larger context of removing the name Canada from your branding and journalism? Are we prepared accordingly?
  2. Consider your key stakeholders – starting with the federal government that is in the process of defunding and harassing you – and make sure they’re informed, in the right way, at the right time. Are you prepared to explain in a clear and compelling way why Rad-Can will now be known as Ici? What about other groups such as Rad-Can and CBC employees, unions (which are particularly pissed about the cost of at least $400,000 in the midst of budget cuts), Francophone groups, the media, broadcasting support groups, and even the opposition parties?
  3. Consider your specific explanation for why the word “Canada” is no longer necessary for a broadcaster that serves Francophones across Canada? After multiple explanations from CBC VP Bill Chambers, it is still as clear as mud.
  4. Consider the issue environment and factors affecting public broadcasting. Ensure that you’re not making the announcement at the same time as, for example, a Tory Backbencher quit the party caucus over the Conservatives sucking the life out of his accountability and transparency bill that would have affected CBC/Radio-Canada?
  5. Ask yourselves: Hey, is this even a good idea? Why do we need to do this? What is wrong with the Radio Canada brand? What’s the urgency? How is creating Ici going to provide better programming and service to Francophone Canadians? How can we – in the broadest sense – justify this decision?

This whole issue pains me. I used to work at the CBC and I know that its employees don’t need to be reminded again of the ineptitude of senior management in a time when budgets are being cut and a cultural battle is being waged against public broadcasting. As a supporter of public broadcasting, I can only shake my head.

Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa was on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Monday, talking about the spat with Ottawa on funding for the Big Move transit plan. On one side, Ontario – through Metrolinx – has raised the idea of hiking the HST in the GTA to pay for transit expansion. On the other side is the federal government and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s letter to Sousa, which basically says you can’t have different HST rates across regions in Ontario. Sousa had a great opportunity to define the issue, but his approach was the wrong one.

Flaherty’s letter was simply an opportunistic political message (“We did not lower the GST to have it taken away from Ontarians by the Wynne government with a news sales tax hike.”) meant to put the Ontario government on the back foot. Sousa’s response – as manifested during this radio interview and elsewhere – was to engage in the debate on Flaherty’s terms and avoid talking about the bigger imperative: making sure the public understands that taxes are how we’re going to pay for badly-needed transit expansion.

Charles Sousa (Image: National Post)

In taking Flaherty’s bait, Sousa’s strategy seemed to be made up of two key messages:

1. Backing away from Metrolinx’s recommendations and saying “we didn’t ask to raise the HST,” or “That’s not what we’re suggesting,” over and over. This is an understandable minor message, but one that – as it was constantly repeated – started to take on the tenor of a recreational athlete complaining to a referee.  Maybe he was worried about how Ontarians were feeling after media coverage of a list of possible “non-tax revenues” generated by Ontario bureaucrats.

2. Avoiding any mention of transit and instead promoting partnership between levels of government, getting everyone at the table – Flaherty in particular – and having a conversation about making the lives of Ontarians better. In fact, Sousa did not once mention the word “transit” and only made one passing reference to the Big Move. Instead, he threw out the words “gridlock” and “competitiveness” and talked relentlessly about “capital infrastructure”. He sounded less like a smart guy trying to explain to a mostly liberal and urban radio audience why we need to consider all possible sources of revenue for transit, and more like a typical politician regurgitating his talking points. He even used the term “going forward”.

I was left with the impression that Ontario’s finance minister was more interested in making nice with Jim Flaherty (low odds on that succeeding) than he was in reinforcing the idea that we need to find a way of paying for transit. Too bad Sousa missed the opportunity to more clearly explain what he was asking for, and what benefits citizens would get in return.

Sure, getting voters to understand and engage on taxes for better transit and less gridlock is not an easy task. It carries political risks, but the alternative path – shying away from any mention of taxes and benefits and letting growth overwhelm us – is the same path to nowhere we’ve been on for decades. And isn’t that what Kathleen Wynne has been saying for months?

Brian Johnston confronts the inevitable media scrum as he leaves his job (Image: Toronto Star)

Normally, the departures of political staff are of little interest to most people; only hard-core political junkies, insiders and observers can take any real meaning from staffing changes.

But these are hardly normal times. As the exodus of staffers from Rob Ford’s office continues, the amount of media attention given to the issue will only increase. Since Rob and Doug Ford are still in blanket denial mode, and since their credibility is in free fall, the media must look elsewhere for clues to what is going on in the mayor’s office. Hence today’s media focus on the exit of advisor Brian Johnston and EA Kia Nejatian. Expect continued media focus on the mayor’s staff and expect those remaining staff members to be asking themselves some critical questions about how to balance their job responsibilities and obligations with other considerations.

I’ve been a political staffer on several occasions, as well as having covered politics as journalist, and I can say that the decision to leave that type of work is often more complex and emotional than a more conventional job, even more so when the heat is on your boss and the media are camped outside your office every day.

Choosing the political life means you need to have certain characteristics. Political staffers must be loyal. That is particularly the case for those with bosses who may try the patience of their staffers. Staffers also must be appropriately deferential. They must be discreet, especially when your boss is accused of drug abuse. Ideally, the staffer should be able to speak truth to power and be able to do it on a regular basis without appearing obstinate and disloyal.

The benefits of working in politics – the network and connections, the understanding of the political process, the knowledge of how to get things done – are partly meant to position staffers for interesting and lucrative work later on. But it’s a trade-off; the hours are long, the tempo is unrelenting, the crises are frequent, the compromises can be uncomfortable.

But there may come a point when you are asked to do something you think is wrong or harmful to the larger political interests of your boss. Or maybe you’re expected to sit by silently as disastrous decisions are being made (decisions that you must help clean up).  Are you more loyal than self-interested? Can you be discreet about the choice you are facing? What if other staff departures might create opportunity for you to advance? You might consider running away in order to limit the damage to your career, but what if potential employers perceive you as being disloyal?

And then, even if you decide to leave, there are questions about how to do it. Not many staffers could imagine doing a media scrum in the City Hall parking garage on their way out, moving box in hand, saying that your former boss is batshit crazy, or has substance abuse problems, or is putting the city and its reputation at risk. But what if that’s the reason you decided to leave? What if you felt that your concern about the city (or your career) outweighs your loyalty to the mayor? What if you felt the only reasonable strategy is to put more pressure on the mayor to step down?

In the case of Rob Ford’s office, I suspect that once Mark Towhey was fired, most of the staffers started asking themselves some of these questions and calculating the costs of hanging around – despite the sudden opportunities for promotion. Part of this calculation would involve a wondering how effective one can be when the office is in 24/7 damage control mode, when the mayor and his family are circling the wagons and denying everything and when the Chief of Staff is seemingly tossed overboard without a second thought?

And once your colleagues start running out the door, everyone accelerates the cost/benefit analysis of staying. The trickle then inevitably becomes a stampede and the reasons for remaining become few in number and harder to defend. Then comes the decision about what to say to the media as security escorts me out. Do I speak diplomatically, or do I – out of concern for the mayor and the city – offer some real insight into what’s going on?

Expect more parking garage scrums to come, and expect more cautious media statements covering up the frantic “Should I stay or should I go?” questions being asked inside the mayor’s office.

Yesterday… What a news day! What a day for journalism!

I had the interesting task of summarizing the big stories of the day on a four-minute phone call with my wife (who’s out of the country). I was spoiled for choice.

Duffy’s quit the Conservative caucus, I say. About time, comes the reply. No doubt, I add, the PMO got tired of waiting for Duffy to do it himself.

Then comes the second story: Paul Godfrey gets summarily axed as Chair of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation – and the rest of the board resigns in protest. The order came from Premier Wynne. The plan to expand gambling, including the downtown Toronto casino proposal, is now pretty much dead.

But it gets better, I say, much better. The Star is running a huge page one story saying there’s video of Rob Ford smoking crack. And they’ve seen it. Our mayor could be a crackhead!

After the call, I felt sort of vindicated after thinking about how people are now going to view Ford, as one of my first posts was about why I would believe anything I heard about Ford. Many people will believe this story, and the Star has no doubt nailed down and lawyered the story several times over. Even Ford Nation will have second thoughts about going to the barricades for their man.

This was a great day for public interest journalism and for those who care about public debate. A buffet of fantastic, important stories that lay bare the trenches of political fighting over public policy issues, political personalities and media coverage of said fights. Each story exploded on Twitter and led to gigantic conversations about transparency, credibility and the pervasive cynicism of politics. Despite the sadness of the stories, I sensed a great degree of positivity in the online conversation because the details of the stories were coming from a wonderful combination of quality journalism, public interest and social media engagement.

I hope tomorrow is as fascinating and engaging as yesterday was. It was heaven from my perspective; stories that push public policy issues out into the light, allowing us to learn about them, debate them and make up our own minds. Even if yesterday’s news made you feel tired and powerless, just imagine how much worse you’d feel if you didn’t learn about the credibility of a senator, the institution and a prime minister; Ontario’s approach to gambling, the money it generates for the government and the emerging character of a new premier who is throwing her weight around; and the reality-tv story of Rob Ford that just gets better and better.

It’s addictive, this stuff.

(Image: Toronto Star)

Canadians have Senator Duffy to thank for exposing us to a story that explains everything we need to know about the federal government and its non-compromising communications strategy.

Is it all that surprising that some politicians lie in order to deny Canadians the facts need to fully understand this entire sad affair? No – of course not. This is not actually an unusual thing in politics.

But now, instead of forgiving the Conservatives for a bit of political back scratching and still associating them with competent economic management, we are increasingly linking them with self-preservation, nastiness and a strong inclination for secrecy.  A sordid story about some public servants gaming the system for cash is changing the political communications landscape for the government.

Let’s set aside for a moment that Senator Duffy was unable to clearly understand the rules around primary and secondary residences and related expense claims, despite being a journalist on Parliament Hill for decades. Let’s also set aside questions related to why the Senate and PMO can’t get Senators to clearly understand the rules and effectively enforce them.

Forget, as well, that some of Duffy’s Senate expense claims covered travel for days when he was campaigning in the last federal election (full details of his expenses are unavailable because the Senate and the Conservatives won’t release them). Forget that Duffy didn’t fully co-operate with the Deloitte audit that was done on his expenses, and also forget that Duffy suggests he clammed up as a quid pro quo for Nigel Wright giving him $90,000.

Instead, consider how all of this was communicated to Canadians and how the issue was contextualized. Consider how Duffy was praised by the PMO for showing “leadership” in paying back his expenses. Consider how the only substantive comment offered on the $90,000 payment was that no taxpayer money was used. Consider, how we’ve been treated like fools.

What is missing is transparency. Without it, there is no credibility and no trust.

Why did the PMO not deal with this much earlier and ensure that Duffy – who is clearly a liability and who has awful judgement – take the blame and pay the price?

I think the answer is because exposing one weakness in the Conservative government communications strategy would then open the door to a complete re-evaluation of how we as citizens understand the choices the government makes. Thanks to the extreme partisanship that underlies all government communications, there is both an enormous disconnect between what we are told about the workings of government and how we actually perceive it and an unwillingness of the government of ever back down from its message.

Now, with Duffy exposing that weakness in spectacular style, things might seem that much clearer to Canadians. When you have been spun so hard and so relentlessly by your government, when you begin to feel like your government can no longer distinguish between fact and fiction, then you stop believing and then you stop listening.

The point is, we’re not really as worried about $90,000 wrongly claimed in expenses as much as we are worried about how the government has attempted to explain and rationalize this to us. That is what pisses us off more than anything.

Lack of transparency leads to lack of credibility. It’s that simple.

The discussion on transit in the GTA has moved past the “what to do” stage and is now in the “how to pay for it” stage. And that’s where it should be.

So why are public officials like Karen Stintz, Glenn De Baeremaeker and Glen Murray not thinking about how it looks when they try to reopen the transit agreement signed last year? Did they not consider how citizens might perceive it when yet another politician tries to revisit a transit deal (Sheppard East, Finch West, the Eglinton Crosstown and replacing the Scarborough LRT) that the region has been waiting decades to see?  I can just imagine the thousands of people, who upon opening the paper in the morning and reading the headlines, saying “Jesus! Enough already! Get on with it!”

Image: Ontario Government Archives

From a political communications perspective, the discussion over transit needs to have a rational and human element to it. This means anyone who advocates for further study, revisions or new ideas needs to explain very clearly why this would be of tangible and practical benefit for transit users and why we should wait even further.

In the case of Stintz and De Baeremaeker, we are wondering why they would be motivated to agitate for a subway to replace the Scarborough LRT? As the Grid’s Ed Keenan wrote in taking apart Stintz and De Baeremaeker’s suggestion, they have ignored the fact that a transit system should primarily serve its users; convenience of service is therefore a key consideration – not, as Keenan points out, the type of technology used.  For example, if a donkey and covered cart pulled up at a Queen streetcar stop and got me to my destination faster than the streetcar, then my needs have been met.

In the case of Glen Murray, he seemed to be thinking aloud about revisiting the entire transit plan. Thankfully for us, he had the poor communications judgement to do it on the same day as the provincial budget – when the government is really only focused on one story – thus pissing off the Premier and forcing Murray to climb down.

Both these cases should be a warning sign to any public official who wants to tinker with the transit deal. Whether for political points, a higher profile, more media coverage or other reason, anyone who decides to indulge themselves by suggesting fundamental changes to the transit plan will be judged harshly.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask Rob Ford.

Few things irritate me as much as politicians (and certain sycophantic elements of the media) who pay lip service to “science” and “evidence” while pursuing policies that are based on pure bullshit – sometimes called “common sense”.

In a contemporary context, much of the debate about global warming and climate change in the U.S. and Canada is infected with this, as is much of the debate over crime and punishment (another post on this will arrive soon, by the way).

A good example of this arose recently when Justin Trudeau wondered why domestically radicalized terror suspects (from the alleged VIA train bombing plot) chose the path of political violence. Barak Obama asked the same question about the Boston suspects. Stephen Harper, however, said this is not the time to “commit sociology” because it would detract from his government’s condemnation of the plot.

And with this, science was once again tossed aside in the service of pure partisan exploitation of a very serious issue. Who cares why this stuff happens, after all? That’s for academics.

Here’s an excellent opinion piece on why Stephen Harper’s comments – and the values they represent – are worth thinking about.  I’m posting it not because I dislike conservatives, but because ignoring science and fact is no way to make smart decisions about public policy. Because ultimately, we all pay for bad policy.