Archives for category: Politics

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.

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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.

Image: Cannabisculture.net

I grew up in the 80s and – full disclosure here – didn’t deal hash.

But there were always drugs around, as it to be expected when you have the necessary ingredients of bored young people with spare cash and free time. I’m not suggesting that every Canadian in their teens and early 20s consumes drugs, but there are compelling statistics to show that it’s not unusual.

Unless, of course, you are Rob or Doug Ford. Everything we have learned about the Fords (even before Saturday’s Globe and Mail story on Doug’s hash-dealing days) suggests that they are familiar with drugs and alcohol. So it wasn’t such a surprise to learn about Rob’s alleged crack use and Doug’s history as a hash dealer.

Yet, the Fords continue their damaging and inexplicable denials of any and all allegations. I won’t even bother to list the names they have used to label any reporter or media outlet that dares to report on their encounters with drugs and alcohol.

I suspect the Fords, coming from a wealthy and conservative family, do not allow themselves the freedom to actually acknowledge that they had a childhood that – like many other of the same generation – includes using drugs and alcohol. Barack Obama, on the other hand, openly admitted his use of grass and cocaine before he was president. It is this enormous and obvious hypocrisy on the part of the Fords that is helping Toronto voters decide who to believe. It also shows that the Fords are so blinkered in their approach to these issues that they refuse to accept any reasonable advice from their own staffers on how to communicate to the people who elected them.

It’s a shame that the Fords can’t see that every blanket denial on drug or alcohol use only makes them look more and foolish, stubborn and self-defeating. This is a perfect case of how to prolong the story, destroy your credibility and ensure that the media dig more cases out of the shadows.

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.

I used to work for the Ontario Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. So I have first-hand experience in knowing that there are some things you don’t want politicized. Public security – including policing, corrections, emergency management and anti-terrorism activities – is a special area of public service. People with guns, people who have powers of arrest, detention and investigation should be shielded from political interference in operations. Their independence is absolutely fundamental to the most basic concept of justice. Additionally, how their work is communicated to the public should also be free of political interference – as this is at the core of the trust that citizens need to have in their police and public security services.

With this in mind, some recent events are worrying.

First thing: Vic Toews, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, recently overruled a prison warden (and, in doing so, apparently broke the established rules) who approved a media interview with Omar Khadr. Why? There was no real explanation from Toews or his office. That story, by the way, was only told because the Canadian Press filed an Access to Information request. I suspect that it was because Vic and Stephen Harper do not want us hearing from someone convicted by a military tribunal of terrorism, even if they are Canadian, even if they have the right to speak and even if they happen to be appealing their sentence. Otherwise we might lose focus on how the government – not the police – are keeping us safe from terrorists. But regardless of what I suspect, this is political interference in an operational decision for decidedly political reasons.

Second thing: Recently, CBC News revealed that RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson circulated a memo that outlined a new process for approving meetings between senior officers and MPs and Senators. The new system? All meetings have to be approved by Vic Toews’s office.

Why this new process?

At first, only the RCMP would respond to this question, saying it “wanted to ensure that all information being sent to parliamentarians was co-ordinated through the strategic policy and planning directorate which manages the ministerial liaison function.”

Then, when a reporter asked why, Toews said (the underlines are mine):

I don’t clear as the appropriate[ness] of any interview. Interviews are done all the time with the RCMP without them clearing it but there is a communications protocol that does take place between the RCMP and my office, absolutely. I’m responsible for the RCMP. I need to know exactly what the RCMP is doing and saying because if I go into the House of Commons and I have no idea what is being said, I’m at a distinct situation where it appears that I’m not carrying out my responsibilities to the House of Commons. So the communication discussions that go on between us, I think are quite normal and certainly were in effect under the prior Liberal government as I recall.

When asked to clarify, Toews said:

Well they don’t clear it with my office but essentially what happens, especially if it’s MPs from my party, they’ll come to me and say, look I want to talk to the RCMP and I’ll refer them to an individual and that’s the end of it. I don’t see any more of that.

So, Minister Toews and his office don’t clear meeting requests, but they do enforce a “communications protocol.” I have no idea what that means, but I wonder why the Minister sees the need to have that degree of oversight and approval over meetings and communications between our national police force and elected MPs.

We should all be concerned about how the hot hand of politics is reaching into parts of the government that should be stone cold objective. Because trust is a difficult thing to build, and we all need to trust those who are tasked with keeping us safe.

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.

Radio Ford Nation (Image: National Post)

One of the first rules elected officials learn – if they don’t already know – is to not comment on any case before a court. But Rob Ford didn’t get that memo. Or he didn’t listen to the briefing. Or maybe he was driving and reading at the time. Because he called into a CFRB talk show yesterday and offered his unsolicited opinion on what should happen to Richard Kachkar, who is awaiting sentencing for killing a Toronto Police officer with a stolen snowplow. The jury is weighing whether Kachkar is criminally responsible for his actions.

Ford’s on-air comments – which are not worth repeating or even summarizing – were typical of his lack of understanding of complex issues. By the way, Ford was the only person sufficiently motivated to call in to the programme.

Is our mayor so clueless that he thinks it’s OK to make public comments on an ongoing criminal trial? Does he think that his connection with Toronto’s citizens is so strong and all-consuming that he can ignore one of the most fundamental rules of behaviour for public office-holders? Does he have any impulse control? Is there anyone who can control Ford’s outbursts?

These are questions shouted into wind. Clearly, there’s not much that can be done about our mayor. However, CFRB should think about what they can do to stop providing an open platform for Ford whenever he wants to open his mouth. I’m sure the station loves that it’s become the official voice of Ford Nation, but they should remind themselves that they have journalistic responsibilities.

If the journalists at CFRB want an example of a more robust interview with the mayor of a large city, then they should check this out.

Meanwhile – speaking of excellence in journalism – I’m going back to watching the continuing coverage of the Pandas.

I’m not particularly surprised that Rob Ford is being accused of groping Sarah Thomson. He is not exactly the living embodiment of a modern, tolerant man.

Sadly, I’m also not surprised that Ford responded in the way he did: by attacking Thomson’s credibility and suggesting she’s crazy. Specifically, he said, “I’ve always said, I don’t know if she’s playing with a full deck from the first time I met her, and I told her that that night.” Things then got a lot weirder when Thomson mused on a radio show that she thought Ford was on cocaine when said alleged groping occurred. That’s when I decided to tune out of this story – except to make the observations below.

I have no idea whether Ford pawed Sarah Thomson or not – both of them, in an odd way, deserve each other. But what I do know is that a great many people will believe anything bad they hear about Rob Ford because it fits perfectly within the range of behaviour we expect from him. And that should inform how he responds to these types of accusations.

Is anyone giving Rob Ford decent communications advice? Is anyone telling him to stop giving just about everyone – outside of Ford Nation – the impression that he’s a boorish, unthinking man-child who can’t resist insulting those who don’t agree with him?

It’s quite possible that there is someone like that on his staff – but that Ford refuses to listen to the advice. Or perhaps his responses are highly strategic, designed as a call to action for his supporters? In either case, I despair.

Meanwhile, like a lot of other Torontonians, I await the emergence of a self-aware and tactful candidate for mayor.