Staffer’s Notebook: We’re not gonna take it. Or we will.



This post started out as an email to my boss, Glen Gower. Then it got a little too long. 

Last month news broke with allegations of improper behavior by Councillor Chiarelli. This week, Councillor Chiarelli requested a leave of absence for stress-related illness as victims shared more first-hand testimonies of sexual harassment. For women working on Councillor’s Row, questionable workplace behaviour from elected officials was old news . The real news was that someone was talking about it. 

My work relationship with my employer gives me the space and confidence to share my concerns about the general working conditions for political staffers. In the weeks since the news broke, Glen and I have had several conversations about woking conditions for Councillors’ staff and he encouraged me to share my thoughts in my Staffer’s Notebook.  

The power dynamics leading men to exert dominance over women’s minds and bodies is well expressed by Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” We expect elected officials to be leaders in their community and we hold them to the highest standard of behavior, yet it is democracy’s inconvenient truth that they represent the best and the worst of us.

The story of the powerful man and the intern is as old as democracy itself. I scoff at the surprise that it should happen here, in Ottawa. If the MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that years of sensitivity and inclusion training has done nothing to discourage those who use sex to control. We seem to take comfort in the suggestion that this behavior is the purview of jerks. Drawing a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys prevents us from looking at the ways our work environment enables abusive behaviour. Nowhere is this as true as in political offices. At all levels of government, the harassment and questionable hiring practices of elected officials take root in a garden carefully maintained by others.

I have worked as a political aide in federal and municipal politics. Everywhere, our employment conditions are precarious. Yet we work amidst organizations with mature and elaborate HR practices, alongside a well-represented unionized workforce. Be it in the federal or municipal government, elected officials are free to belittle, sexually objectify and threaten their staff while everyone looks the other way. And so the seeds of abuse sprout and grow unchecked, untamed and unmanaged. Our only recourse is to take it or leave it.

The image of one elected official representing one constituency has not kept pace with the complexity of representative democracy. Elected officials still hold office as a one-man show, but their operating budgets have grown to include a full-time staff providing the level of service that residents expect. Yet, everything in the staffing of political offices seeks to minimize the visibility of staffers and discount their existence. We are an extension of our employer, a line item in an operating budget, hired and fired at will. Our jobs have no requirements, our salaries are drawn from the same budget as office furniture and left to the discretion of each councillor. There is no salary scale, no promotion track, no equal pay, no performance reports, but most importantly, no complaint mechanism protecting us from the consequences of speaking out. Like office stationery we are expendable, and our value lies in augmenting a Councillor’s capacity without being noticed.

The low pay and precarious conditions of employment invite a workforce that is young, inexperienced and transient, unwilling to compromise its ability to find better paying work elsewhere in the organization. It also works to create a revolving door of young and inexperienced staff that carries with it a reputation for incompetence and ineffectiveness. Some departments will not let municipal staff interact directly with political aides in the absence of a manager. It works at cross-purpose with the City’s stated goal to be an employer of choice and with councillors’ need to receive sensible and knowledgeable advice in the conduct of their duties. Most importantly, it prevents the coalescence of stories, concerns and experiences into corporate memory and practices.

The precarity and sensitive nature of elected officials’ positions has explained their need for flexibility in staffing. For the most part, this flexibility has worked to the advantage of people like me: people with incomplete or patchy resumes, people with interrupted work experience, people whose personal lives have stunted their professional development, in other words, people who have difficulty finding work elsewhere. A CBC news item referred to our positions as “desirable” and I agree that my position as a Councillor’s Assistant has given me a unique perch into the complex levers of public administration. But being “lucky to have this job” combined with the unchecked staffing practices afforded to elected officials compromises our ability to challenge abuse,  especially in the absence of clearly defined protections against retaliation.

We assume that the desirability of our position makes up for its precarity. This might be true for the stock staffer imagined from political tv series but for those who eschew the glamour of fiction, the desirability is subservient to the precarity. We have bills to pay, families to support. We make decisions to manage the precarity of our positions rather than its desirability: we keep our heads low, we don’t make waves. We can justify the low pay and long hours by the desirability of the position. But we cannot in good conscience justify vulnerability to abuse and harassment as the price to pay for a desirable position. Yet this is the message that the City sends staffers by letting elected officials make their own rules in matters of staffing.  

Last week, Mayor Watson and Councillor Kavanagh issued a public statement stating that “All City employees, including employees of elected officials, have the right to a workplace that is free of harassment.” This is as true as it is meaningless. We may have access to counselling services and a shoulder to cry on, but we are institutionally kept at arm’s length from the City’s Human Resources. Once we avail ourselves of our 6 counselling sessions, our options to deal with harassment remain as binary as they ever were: take it or leave it. There is no HR pipeline to find us safe employment elsewhere in the City, no procedure to provide adult supervision to our employers, no protection against the gossip and rumours that may spread as a result.

The Clerk’s Office sent out an email reiterating the City’s commitment to be a workplace free of harassment and announcing a review of the recruitment and hiring process for Councillor’s Assistants. I hope that this review will be done in consultation with Councillors’ Assistants. However, I am concerned that the need for sweeping systemic changes, once identified, will meet fierce opposition from Councillors and inertia from City Staff. 

Power is a tricky thing to pass on. It’s slippery and it doesn’t have handles. 

Sight Lines


It’s Tuesday morning and we are walking to school down a neighbourhood street, the kind that invites speeding.

The street is straight and as wide as a French highway. Every street corner boasts ample sight lines, right into another beautiful, wide, straight, neighbourhood street. These neighbourhood streets are so close to two elementary schools that the children who live here do not qualify for bussing. They are expected to walk or bike. Yet the car — or if you live in an affluent suburb like Stittsville, the luxury SUV and the contractor pick-up — is King. The roads are designed for maximum visibility, which we have learned, invites maximum speed.

On our walk to school, I am holding my 5 year-old’s hand on one side of the street. My daughter is walking on the opposite side  because she’s mad at me.

Before we left, her brother threw her school bag on the ground instead of giving it to her and she said: “I’m not picking it up” and started leaving. I said “So he throws your school bag on the ground and you leave it here with your lunch and your homework. Who are you punishing exactly?” Her brother was long gone. She lashed out at me “SHUT UP. I don’t care about you, I don’t care what you think. Just stop talking.” And my heart just broke because it was the third time before 8 am I had been told by someone to shut up and the second time I had been told that no one cared. And that was after being yelled at by another angry child who had been asked not to swing a toy at the walls, accusing me of not caring about anyone. Never in my life have I met someone who worked so hard for people she doesn’t care about.

And so we walked towards the school and toward an incoming white SUV who had to swerve to avoid my daughter on one side, then swerve to avoid my son and I on the other side. In my impatience, I made a hand gesture signalling her to slow down and she did slow down just enough to roll her window down and yell at me.

“I’m doing 35!” she said as she sped off again through a stop sign. The stop signs are beautifully designed for maximum safety, with sight triangles the size of Texas. The visibility is so impeccable that you don’t even need to stop, you can see cars coming a mile away. A 5 year-old on his bike, maybe not. But he’s not the King of the road.

Who knows, maybe she was doing 35? Speed is hard to appreciate when the pick-up coming at you is so jacked that the front wheels are taller than your 5 year-old. You wouldn’t want to be stuck in traffic on the 417 with anything less than 10 inch of ground clearance. Everything looks too fast when it weights 2 tons and is coming at you, know what I mean? I don’t have a radar gun in my head, I only have a hunch that whatever the speed limit is, if you need to serve to avoid my child, it might be too high. Just a hunch. Just a mother’s heart that may be bruised but still skips a beat when you hurl a heavy-duty motor vehicle at the featherweight child she’s just been accused of not caring about.

My daughter crossed the street and came to see me. She said “Why was this lady yelling at you?” and I said it was because I had made a sign to slow down. “That lady looks like she might have a problem” my daughter answered.  And I said “Maybe. But how is that different from what you did this morning?”

“I said something you didn’t like so you yelled at me. I said something this lady didn’t like so she yelled at me.”

“I’m everyone’s anger doormat. People are angry and they don’t like it, so they look for someone to wipe their anger off on. You just used me to clean the anger you felt towards your brother. This lady used me to clean up the anger she felt at God-knows-what. We wipe our anger on people and we leave satisfied, for a moment. But the anger doesn’t disappear. Now I have to deal with it. Now I have to deal with the pain of having been yelled at, of having been told no one cares about what I say, of having been accused of not caring.”

Now I have to deal with the fear that the next time this lady drives by my family she’ll speed up instead of slowing down, just to show me who this street really belongs to. Anger doesn’t dissipate. It doesn’t evaporate. It communicates like a disease. It sullies everything it touches until all of us are trying to wipe it off something else.

Seeing is not caring. We thought that better visibility would make our roads safer,  as if seeing the other was all that carefulness needed to take root. We expanded the sight lines, widened the triangles, until we realized that carelessness expands to fit the space it is given.

We have worked diligently to eliminate friction points. To eliminate the need to proceed with caution. To eliminate the need to look the stranger in the eye, to see the other’s fear. We are trying to eliminate the need to mature, to become self-aware. To admit our mistakes. We make it possible for a grown woman driving an expensive vehicle to react with the maturity of a 10 year-old girl and drive away satisfied, having learned nothing but maybe taught two children that problems are solvable by denial and deflection.

And so carelessness expands to fit the space it is given, anger communicates like a disease, and sight lines become blind spots.

 

Daily blog: Knitting and baking.


I put a Facebook request for a blog topic and within the requested 5 minutes I received two suggestions: knitting and baking.

I not a good enough knitter to write something useful about knitting (like tips and tricks or maybe a made-from-scratch pattern?) but I can certainly share what I’ve been up to. As for baking, this is a little bit more up my alley although needing to eat low carb and gluten-free has put a damper on my baking ambitions. There isn’t much that ruins my will to live like baking something I can’t eat. I always end-up eating it anyway (gotta make sure no one dies) and since I’m a decent cook, I end-up eating most of it. Half a pan of banana oatmeal chocolate chip muffins is as potent as a whole bottle of antidepressants except that it won’t kill you. It will kill your keto streak, however.

In the knitting department, I finally finished the Martin-Storey Mystery Knitalong from 2016. I purchased all the wool in a kit and tried really hard not to see it as a $200 blanket. Because I would never spend $200 on a blanket unless I was making it myself, which makes no sense whatsoever. Why do we expect knitting and sewing to make sense? They’re hobbies. All hobbies are expensive and useless, that’s the point of having a hobby as opposed to a job. We don’t expect horseback riding to make financial sense from a transportation point-of-view, do we?

First, I was supposed to finish the blanket for Clara’s 20th birthday. Then as her Christmas gift, then as her 21st birthday gift, then 22nd and finally, I decided that it would be her graduation gift. I was still finishing it at 1 am the day before her graduation party and blocking it the morning of. It might have been wrapped-up slightly damp but it was given as a graduation gift and that’s that.

Then I made a bunch of striped Barley hats with the leftover yarn. No one will wear them because they are itchy but eh.

Here are the patterns:

Barley hat by tin can knit.

I added the stripes myself. To properly stripe the garter stitch section, you have to make sure to change colour on a knit row and from a knit row. So you’re knitting the new colour unto a row of knit stitches or else, ah, hum, I can’t describe it but if you purl the new colour or knit the new colour on a purl row it will look like you’re wearing your hat inside out. Don’t take my word for it, try it if you enjoy frogging your work.

Martin Storey 2016 Mystery KAL

My personal religion is that sampling is for the birds and that’s not always a good idea when you are knitting an afghan. I learned so much putting this thing together! It took me two-thirds of the sewing the squares together to finally understand how sewing worked (it’s a little more subtle than the Montessori lacing toy would have you believe).

Baking-wise, I suffer from cooking fatigue. I haven’t been baking much but I have been learning Indian cuisine. I started following recipes but I decided that I wanted to learn how to cook the way an Indian mom would in her own kitchen. And from what I could see, women learned cooking from other women and not from books. I found this guy on Youtube who cooks on an open fire in his garden. He doesn’t say a word but his videos are mesmerizing. I still use recipes but I’m also learning about the order of things in Indian cuisine — what goes in when, how big should the chunks be, how long should you pound the brains out of that ginger — from his videos. I love that he is using one knife (I get laughed at because I also use one knife for everything) and sitting on the floor. Living in a real Indian or Pakistani family just to learn how to cook is a bucket list item for me. Let me know if you know someone who will have me. Man, I love palak paneer…. Gotta go!!

On being fearless


Today marks the launch of my long-awaited website Fearless Family Life.The vagaries of life in a large family tend to stretch every possible timeline beyond recognition but I also suffered from an uncomfortable want of knowing where to take this train.

Over the last year, I have had countless opportunities to reflect on the direction I wanted to move in. At first, I did what most business-minded writers would do and looked at popular parenting blogs. Parenting seems to be as divided as politics, from the more liberal “it’s ok to suck, you have it so hard” to the more conservative “parenting is a war to be won”. In between lies the world of listicles: 10 reasons why your toddler is a jerk and Why good moms start drinking before 9. As an educated woman with both a love for my children and a struggle to be the best person I can be, I found these messages confusing and wholly uninspiring.

The truth is that parenting is hard but we are all stronger than we think. Whether we started our journey from a position of strength or a position of weakness, whatever our challenges are, we can always push ourselves a little farther. Strength builds in increments: fearless family life is about taking the next step on our parenting journey, from wherever we currently are.

In family life, our fears are too often born of our own judgment. We love to read about overcoming mommy-guilt but women are crumbling under the weight of their own expectations. Being fearless is refusing to be guided by our fear of inadequacy. It’s about challenging ourselves without judgment.

Fearless Family Life is my gift of encouragement to you. It’s here to tell you that you can do this. It’s here to share the most important lesson I learned in 20 years of family life: that you love your children better than anyone. Fearless Family Life is about allowing yourself to be guided by love rather than fear, by hope rather than shame. It’s about stepping into the world of possibilities and looking up to where you are going instead of down and around on everyone else’s journey.

Imagine that you and your family are in a boat. You can work together to get somewhere or you can work against each other and sink. Whatever you decide, you’re in this together.

Requiem for a blog


I killed my blog. It happened without me noticing, a direct result of being a near computer illiterate. I mentioned in my last blog post that I could no longer upload pictures to WordPress. I had recently reached the storage limit of my media library so I started deleting pictures. The error message changed from “You have reached the limit of your storage capacity” to the cryptic “HTTP Error”. A quick search on support forums revealed that an overgrown media library could bring this message about so I set out to delete even more pictures.

Before I started deleting pictures, I checked to see if deleting pictures from the library would also delete them from the blog itself. That’s where I made a mistake, wasn’t sufficiently thorough, or maybe just didn’t have a clue. When I checked my blog, the deleted pictures still appeared on the page. I went ahead and deleted my entire media library. Today I found out that the pictures I saw on my blog pages were probably a “cached” version, or some mystery to that effect. In reality, the pictures are gone. Gone from the library, gone from the blog, my posts eviscerated, some of them no longer making any sense.

I poured a lot of my blood, sweat and tears on these pages since July 2011. I shared the early months of my twins, the birth of my ninth baby, our moves, homeschooling and my recent miscarriage. Some posts were wildly popular, others just touched a few hearts but touched them deeply, some were like a tree fell in the forest. Some readers shared their stories back with me and as my community of readers grew, I felt less isolated, more connected. This blog, the writing and the friendships that were born from it, has kept me firmly grounded as I sailed through some of the most intense and beautiful moments of my life.

After coming to the realization that my blog was irreversibly damaged, I spent some time exploring my options. I came to the conclusion that Vie de cirque had outgrown the basic WordPress platform I was using and it was time to ditch the training wheels and to move this wonderful community to a platform better suited for its growing potential.

Some things will change along with the hosting service. Most importantly, the name will change to “Fearless Family Life”. I know that many of you like “Vie de cirque” but it doesn’t lend itself well to search engines. I get many hits and messages from people looking for a French language blog on life in a circus. I need a title that is more evocative and easier to communicate.

Our family is at a juncture where it needs to diversify its sources of income: you know what they say about eggs and baskets. My husband, our only support, has a lot of very precious eggs in a basket-line that is expected to take a beating under the new Canadian government. My blogging is the most likely way to juggle my vocation and our need for diversification. As a result, I decided to take my focus off my writing for the next little while as I work on launching Fearless Family. I will find a way to archive my Vie de Cirque posts so that they are still easily accessible, I’m also planning to re-publish the most popular ones. I will still keep in touch via my YouTube Channel, my personal Facebook page and Instagram.

This is not an “Adieu!’ but an “au revoir” until we launch something that has the ability to grow with our family. In the mean time, please indulge me as I share one of my favorite musical pieces of all time, from Mozart’s Requiem. But don’t cry: we’ll be back soon.

 

 

 

More mixed nuts: Election debrief… Whoa…


Ha! So I blew my election predictions in every way possible: not only did the Conservative not form a minority but the NDP is not even close to be the official opposition. Some formidable parliamentarians fell to the anti-Harper sentiment, replaced by people who now have big shoes to fill. As defeated MP Paul Dewar said, there is no safe seat. But I’m still reeling from the sense that our Parliament will be diminished from the loss of the wrong people. My former boss and friend, Pierre Lemieux, a man of admirable strength and integrity, one who earned the trust and love of his constituents one intervention at a time since 2006, lost it all suddenly on Monday. I’m not one to lament the exercise of democracy, even when it doesn’t go my way. I’ve written enough polite letters  to people who thought it was all about them, in some gosh-forsaken corner or rural Canada; I’ve scrolled through enough Facebook statuses calling Canadians idiots for electing a Conservative majority the last time around to fall to the same excesses. Elections are a beautiful thing, period.

In no organized fashion, here are a few of my thoughts as we move into the next chapter of Canadian history.

And a 1. I’m not one to blame media bias for the electoral loss of the Conservatives. It was annoying enough when the defeated Liberals blamed their misfortune on Conservative campaign ads. All the major newspapers endorsed Prime Minister Harper as the best choice for Canada, to the Left’s great chagrin (and even some on the right). That said, the CBC’s giddiness toward the Liberal majority government is just a little unbecoming. Call me a realist but I never expected media to be unbiased: journalists are humans, with likes, dislikes and opinions. However, there is a certain finesse in peddling your wares in a way that at least appears balanced. Showing-off your red knickers on national radio and television is just coarse.

And a 2. Speaking of red boxers, the Public Servants who live and work in Ottawa had no love lost for their Prime Minister. Their organized strategic voting campaign and open support of the Liberals and — to a lesser extent — the NDP definitely had a powerful effect on the electoral make-up of the Ottawa area, who went from tri-colour to bright red. The Canadian Public Service is rife with with bullying, mental illness and absenteeism. It is also rife with highly skilled and highly competent men and women who came to their position through a rigorous process of promotions and contests. I have never been privy to any negotiations or backroom talks between the Conservative government and its Public Servants but it always seemed to me that — in very broad strokes inadequate for such large topic — our outgoing government was approaching the relationship with the bullying, absentee Public Service in mind, whereas the incoming Liberals approach it with the highly skilled and competent Public Servant in mind. Of course, both approaches are lacking, one for being too stern and paternalistic and the other for being too soft and coddling. The truth is that the driven, committed and public-service minded Public Servants suffer from the deadwood in the Public Service at least as much (if not more) as the taxpayers and service seekers do. The clerk responsible for my maternity leave with the twins made several mistakes that cost our family dearly, among other things putting me on maternity leave rather than short term disability when I went on bed rest and my sick days ran out. It forced me back to work when my twins were 10 months-old. While I was on maternity leave trying to straighten this shit out, my pay clerk was on a never-ending series of sick days, with no one responsible for her files. Call again Friday, maybe she’ll be there. I had to make several trips to the nearest Service Canada office to wait in line for hours with my 2-3 month-old twins to lodge a request to start my mat leave on the right day, which meant a retroactive redress calling for a administrative tribunal decision. This anecdote is not meant to pile-on Public Service employees. On the contrary, it’s to show that the people who have to cover for, redress and handle the mistakes of one colleague, presumably over and over again, also have an interest in a vibrant, productive and healthy public service. Whatever the solution to the issues with the Public Service is, it should involve the people on the inside, the hands and heads who are doing the work, interacting with colleagues and dealing with the fall-out of bullying, mental illness and absenteeism. I do hope that better labour relations between the Public Service and the government will in fact lead to a more constructive approach to Public Service reform. Although if the Ontario Liberals are any indication, as far as labour relations are concerned, the only thing being a Liberal guarantees is not being Conservative.

And a 3. The upheaval in the Conservative party brought-on by their electoral defeat has given way to an unusual candour from Conservative MPs and candidates with regard to their misfortune and what may have caused it. Over the Conservative’s three consecutive governments, much ink was spilled about the “gag order” or “muzzle” Prime Minister Harper and his PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) had presumably placed on its caucus and staff. My observation as a former staffer is that the great majority of Conservative Members and staff had a natural understanding of party discipline and didn’t need a muzzle or gag order to close ranks. The Conservatives, especially former members of the Canadian Alliance and Reform Party, have always enjoyed a confrontational rapport with the media. Get misinterpreted, quoted out of context and attributed a “hidden agenda” for long enough and you stop caring about the press. I myself ended-up on the front page of Le Devoir for attending a luncheon (paid out of my own pocket, attended on my own time) at the Parliamentary restaurant with a leadership figure from the Catholic Church, leading to suggestions of somber motives and machinations. When you get grilled aggressively by a journalist for answering the phone, you stop answering, know what I mean? All this to say, being freed from the requirements of party discipline has opened the door to candidates and staffers’ analysis of what went wrong and has been cathartic for me. When I left Pierre’s employment, I had long stopped identifying with the brand of conservatism sold by the Conservative party. As far back as the 2011 campaign, when I was campaign manager, I knew that strategically-speaking we had to avoid references to the Conservative Party and especially the leader of the Conservative Party when canvassing. We knew we could win on the strength of our candidate as long as the National Campaign didn’t screw-up too badly. We won that election handily but lost the last one in a blood bath: there was only so much ignoring our voters could handle. When I left my job, I told people that I felt loyalty towards my boss but that I couldn’t support the Conservative Party as it was and had been for a number of years. When I heard Lisa Raitt on the radio lament that the Conservatives were unable to appeal to women like her (which are, incidentally, women like me just with less children), it was like a breath of fresh air. Sentiments such as these were never expressed before, at least not in public. Defeated Finance Minister Joe Oliver said that he heard his constituents over and over again tell him how much they liked him but couldn’t support the leader of the party. I’m sure this is something that my boss’s canvassers heard over and over again in the last 6 weeks. When I was campaign manager, this type of feedback was not welcomed by the National Campaign. Same for the PMO when I was a staffer fielding hate mail from Conservative Party members (you know, those who *liked* us?) about attack ads. We were always told that they had the numbers, they had the polling, they had the donations to prove that they had it right. Just stay the course they would repeat. And maybe it was true at the time but with the gift of hindsight and my own experience, I now believe that I saw last Monday’s results coming like a train wreck in slow motion. Now that the Conservatives have received a stunning blow, I hope that something new emerges from the ashes of what used to be. I still hold firm to conservative ideals, which I believe are not mutually exclusive with intelligence, compassion and vision. I also believe in federalism, the Canadian Constitution and Parliamentary democracy. How nice would it be to have a federal Conservative Party that inspires rather than scold? Many have made hay of Justin Trudeau’s charisma but leadership is about more than steering the wheel: it’s also about giving people a reason to follow. We need to be inspired.

And a 4. Bets are now being registered to see which one of the Liberals’ lofty campaign promises — I’m not sure anyone expected to be held-up to it — are going to be shelved first. Income splitting was criticized for benefiting “wealthy families” who can afford to live off one salary. As one of Canada’s new “rich” — as defined by the Liberal platform — I would appreciate the break afforded by income splitting. Believe it or not, when you have 9 dependents, a 4% tax hike makes a difference in such luxuries as groceries and dental work. I would not bet the farm on the widespread legalization of pot coming anytime soon. I don’t think that the Liberals, even given their comfort level with deficit spending, will have quite enough money to borrow to make a dent in our infrastructure deficit. They’ll give it a good try but I don’t think it will come anywhere close to what voters are expecting. What are your bets?

And a 5. You know what? I’m actually happy we have a Liberal majority, in a way. I know that many people expressed the desire for a Liberal minority with NDP opposition to level it off. Believe me, a minority Parliament is not a healthy state in our Westminster system. It is stressful, unproductive and, because it leads to more frequent elections, costly. If Canadians wanted a Liberal government, let Canadians have a Liberal government and give it the opportunity to govern. This is Canada after all: where we have scrupulously fair elections, a functioning judicial system and just about every blessing a country an ask for.

In Rick Mercer’s words:

Mixed Nuts: Election Day in Canada 2015


I started this post the day before the election and since I don’t have the luxury of writing as the results come in (because: bedtime) I decided to start writing Sunday night. The unfortunate colateral result is that I will be writing in light of the most recent polls as opposed to the results of the elections. If the last campaign is any indication, those will be wildly inacurate. Why?

Uno. The “Shy Tory Factor” is something that is consistently throwing pollsters out of whack. I think that this opinion piece from The Guardian is accurate and the source of much handwringing and hangover the day after conservative electoral victories. On Tuesday, before you clutter my Facebook feed with your outrage, remember that I told you so.

Dos. Three years ago, when the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) started cranking out attack ads aimed at Justin Trudeau (the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada — LPC), I was working on Parliament Hill as a writer for a local Member of Parliament. Attacks ads went after Justin Trudeau’s vacuity, lack of substance and absence of platform. As a writer, I had to write a lot of things that annoyed me, such as explaining politely to a variety of Mrs. Lalonde’s that her federal MP could not help her with her hydro bill, school bus issue or culvert. I regurgitated my Grade 5 Civics more times than I care to remember. Yet, nothing was quite as repulsive as having to reply to letters criticizing attack ads. I had to craft a reply that communicated our concerns about Justin Trudeau without wholeheatedly endorsing the more puerile aspects of the ads. Thankfully my boss was ok with it, I’m not sure how I would have dealt with having to write a cheerleading endorsement of the ads. All this to say, part of me is secretely jubilant that Justin Trudeau and his team were able to play these ads to their advantage. If it wasn’t for the part where they were so successful they might win the election, I’d be cheering for them. But my husband is packing us up and moving to Texas as I write so…

Tres. How did Justin Trudeau turn the attack ads around? It’s simple. All you have to do with attack ads is to not prove them right. The challenge is that attack ads are not made out of thin air, they are rooted in reality. The image of Stéphane Dion as a weak, dithering, out-of-touch professor came from somewhere. As did the image of Michael Ignatieff as an oppotunistic, temporary leader. Both former Liberal leaders walked right into the sterotypes the Conservative ad machine had made them out to be. Justin Trudeau defied them because he kept his cards very close to his chest. His absenteism record in the House of Common was notable but allowed him to duck more than a few potholes on the road to the campaign. His refusal to lay down a party platform ahead of the election campaign was also criticized by friends, foes and journalists alike. Yet, it gave no new ammunition to the attack ads machine, leaving it to work with Justin’s hair and Justin’s car and Justin’s former job as a drama teacher. Not only did the attack ads run out of steam and credibility, but Trudeau was able to prove them wrong. Which wasn’t hard at all.

Cuatro. Why wasn’t it hard? Because 3 years of attacking his credibility with almost nothing to go on has lowered the expectation of the public toward Trudeau to such an extent that he exceeded them just by showing-up with his pants on. (If the image of Justin Trudeau strolling on debate stage without his pants on just made your day my work here is done.)

Cinco. Faced with a negative campaign about Justin Trudeau based on image, Trudeau’s managers were able to duck most of the negative characterization of their leader by running a very tight and disciplined image campaign. It was so good, it was bad. Kelly McParland explains why in this piece. As a student of political campaigns, I can’t help but take notes. That said, if you expect elected Trudeau’s handlers to feed him freely to the Parliamentary Press Gallery,  you will be sorely disillusioned when you realize that Stephen Harper’s tight media access rules were just the warm-up. The Conservative learned partisan politics from the Chrétien Liberals.

Seis. Does this mean that Trudeau-for-Prime-Minister is a done deal? Well, by the time you read this piece, it might be. But for now, my call of a Conservative minority with a NDP opposition still stands. If you looked under the hood of elections statistics, you might be surprised to learn that many close campaigns are decided by the advance polls. It is enterily possible for a candidate to lose election night and be bolstered over the wall by advance polls results. The NDP and the Conservatives can boast of the best and brightest committed voters. The Liberal appeal is to the mushy middle, the same people who don’t vote on election day. We have seen unprecedented levels of voter participation at the advance polls and while it might point to a higher voting rate overall, my guess is that this was the result of Conservative and NDP campaigns ferrying their committed  voters to the advance polls. You know what they say about a bird in hand.

Siete. All this said, this has been an exciting election campaign and last minute swing voters might brave the cold and the waiting lines to cast their votes. I’m not sure the charm of Justin Trudeau’s inexperience will last long under the harsh light of reality. Minority governments, which is the best the Liberals can aspire to, are long, frustrating, and unproductive campaigns. Minority is not a healthy state in Canadian Parliamentary democracy.

Posting this before heading to the polls. It will be an exciting, nail-biting, evening and while worried about the spectre of a Liberal government I am also very curious to see if some dead wood will be replaced and how.

(If you wonder why I wrote my numbers in Spanish, it’s because WordPress kept indenting my numbers. Drove me nuts. I’m one of those old people who believe that machines should do strictly what they are told.)