Monday, September 22, 2014

Word On The Street - Chantal Hebert and Tim Harper

Although it started out quite ominously with heavy downpours, yesterday turned out to be a good day. As the clouds cleared, we hopped on the GO bus to attend Toronto's Word on the Street, an annual celebration of literacy. I always take heart when I see a strong cross-generational presence among the many thousands gathering for the love of reading and learning.

This year was especially gratifying, as we actually got seats in the Toronto Star tent to hear Chantal Hebert and Tim Harper discuss the national political scene and take numerous questions from the audience, moderated by the Star's Bob Hepburn.

Tim Harper qualified his remarks with two provisos: he has been regularly wrong in his predictions, citing his failure to foresee the demise of B.C.'s Adran Dix as one egregious example, and his assumption that he would be enjoying a long journalistic relationship with Alison Redford, the now former premier of Alberta.

He and Chantal Hebert also agreed that what the federal landscape will look like following next year's election will only become clearer once the campaigns are in full throttle.

Nonetheless, based on present indicators, they offered their views on a variety of topics:

On Justin Trudeau: Drawing upon the analogy of a colouring book, Tin Harper said that much of Trudeau's picture is at present not coloured in. His employment of platitudes rather than policy statements may work for now, but the crucible of the election campaign will determine whether he can retain his 'rock star' status. He suggested that one of the reasons Stephen Harper has been burnishing his foreign policy credentials is to offer a sharp contrast to the unseasoned Trudeau.

On Thomas Mulcair and the NDP: Hebert and Harper suggested that the party has a problem branding itself in places like Ontario and the west. Those who have grown weary of the Harper machinations are more likely to go to the Liberals than the NDP, despite the fact that Mulcair has shone during Question Period, which very few people ever watch. And even though Mulcair has proven himself to be a much sharper politician than Trudeau (e.g., Trudeau immediately endorsed our adventure in Iraq, 'as long as it continues to have parliamentary oversight', while Mulcair has withheld his party's approval, saying that neither the terms of the engagement have been revealed and no parliamentary oversight exists), it doesn't translate into greater electoral support.

On Mike Duffy's Trial: While it seems unlikely that Harper will be testifying at the trial, Chantal Hebert was of the view that ultimately it won't make much difference because, unlike the aforementioned Trudeau, Harper's picture is fully coloured in. Those who support him will not change their opinion, no matter what happens, and those who oppose him wouldn't believe him even if he testified that he had no knowledge of the payoff from Nigel Wright.

Tim Harper also pointed out a couple of interesting points. Given the array of charges Duffy is facing, the Wright payoff is only one of about 31 crimes Duffy is alleged to have committed. It, in fact, will likely occupy only a relatively small portion of the trial, and a judge would not allow it to be turned into a political circus, even if that is Duffy's intent.

Canaries in the Conservative coal mine? Referring to the column he had just written that appears in today's Star, Harper noted that about 30 Conservatives will not be seeking re-election in 2015. Is this an indication of widespread backbencher dissatisfaction? Is it normal attrition? Do members genuinely want to spend more time with their families and earn money in the private sector? These are all unanswerable questions at this point, but the columnist did point out that without the power of incumbency, many seats will be up for grabs, which could prove significant.

On CETA: This was probably the most discouraging aspect of the discussion, reminding me of the harsh and unprincipled nature of politics. Trudeau has endorsed the agreement, text unseen, while Mulcair has temporized, saying that he needs to see the text first. Both Hebert and Harper are of the view that both opposition leaders have little choice but to support it, given its widespread endorsement by Quebec, Ontario and all the other provinces. Challenging the agreement would be too expensive politically.

All in all, a very good day for a political junkie.

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