Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Campaign Update: The Feel on the Street

As of September 29th there are only 20 days left until the election comes to a conclusion. Despite the length and complexity of the campaign it is soon coming to a close. As we approach election day much of my efforts have shifted into organizing and canvassing neighbourhoods. I won't go into depth about the strategy of the campaign because that's our business, but as I canvas neighbourhoods I am noting patterns that I figured I could share.

The vast majority of voters I encounter fall within two camps. First are the committed Conservatives. They are a minority overall but of the voters who are determined to vote a particular way they are definitely the largest group I talk to. People who are voting Conservative know they are voting Conservative. After all the bad news for Conservatives they are down to their very base of support. The second group is far larger and far more difficult to deal with. They are left-leaning undecideds. Now they are not necessarily 'left-leaning'. These people could have no expressed political ideology. On our canvassing I often remark to my companions "another ABC" code for Anybody But Conservatives. Anti-Conservative or Anti-Harper voters are thick on the ground on Brampton, but have not yet decided where to leap.

Obviously this does not describe all voters. Many are utterly undecided and willing to consider all parties. Others are committed Liberals or New Democrats.

What's heartbreaking to me as I knock on these doors is that many want to vote for the NDP, but are too scared to. They cannot, in their minds, risk voting for the NDP for fear a Conservative might win. Strategic voting will play a big role in this campaign, which in many ways is unfortunate. Strategic voting is always questionable to me. It presumes that everyone else isn't acting the same and that you have absolute knowledge. It relies heavily on polling information and worse still, projections.

Let's use a riding in Brampton as a case study. Brampton East was narrowly lost by the NDP in 2011 and was won provincially in 2011 and 2014. Yet a website advocating strategic vote suggests that ABC voters should vote Liberal. This hardly makes sense to me.

Not to mention, if strategic voters want to avoid having to make these decisions in the future shouldn't they support the NDP and bring an end to the First-Past-the-Post system that creates the need? The Liberals have no interest in reforming our electoral system.

Most voters I am meeting are undecided. Their votes are very much up for grabs. The election and polls could swing wildly as we approach the final vote. In the meantime I'll keep chipping away and turn Brampton South orange.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Worth Reading - September 24, 2015

Short list this week, it has been a hectic one. It's only 25 days until election day!

This past week the community group Brampton Focus organized a novel debate strategy. Here is the Brampton Guardian's coverage, which highlights the absentee Conservatives and two Liberals

I have seen a lot of hyperbole about the new U.K. Labour leader, Corbyn, so I was glad to read this piece in the Globe about his ideas

Desmond Cole is now writing for the Toronto Star. Here is his inaugural piece about a 'White Students' Union'. The posters look like creepy bro ads from Abercrombie.

During the last debate Stephen Harper made reference to "old stock Canadians". At first I didn't react much to the phrase, but many did. Here is a piece contextualizing the comment

As the election draws nearer Peter Loewen asks the question, do local candidates matter

The Prairies are poised to change its colours. From Eric Grenier, polls indicate that Saskatchewan and Manitoba are ready to trade Conservative blue for NDP Orange and Liberal Red. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Book Review: Shopping for Votes by Susan Delacourt

It was convenient timing that had me reading Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them during the 2015 federal election. Delacourt lays out in a clear narrative how marketing and advertising has changed politics over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There is an interesting intersection in this book between changes in Canadian society, culture and politics. The rise of consumerism caused all three to adapt. One would impact upon another and force the other to change further. The introduction of basic marketing principles gave parties a distinct edge in the 1950s and 60s, but then as voters became cynical politics was forced to follow.

A deep dive into how politics and marketing became one.

One of the things I appreciate about this book is that it has given me a knew lens through which to look at Canadian politics. As I alluded to above, the cultural shift towards a distrust of institutions and politics could be more accurately found in consumerism than politics. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's brutal central control is rooted in his understanding of consumer-citizen politics and what it takes to succeed in a world of brands, slogans and value propositions.

Delacourt makes frequent reference to a certain category of Canadians, the Tim Horton's voter. Tim Horton's successful marketing and massive market share has made it a national symbol. It also typifies a certain class of voter. Middle class/lower-middle class, without airs, not particularly engaged in politics. This cohort is a significant portion of the Canadian electorate. Swinging as much as 10% of the electorate can be the difference between third-party and governing majority. The parties have used market research and databases to slice and dice the electorate. They pinpoint the voters they know are in their camp, target them, find the poachable groups and pull them into winning coalitions.

The consumer-citizen (a concept and phrase that makes my skin crawl) has resulted in some idiotic policy. The example that comes to mind from Shopping for Votes is the snowmobile tax credit. Rural outdoors-people was a target group and so the Conservatives developed a policy directly to appeal to them. Governing is secondary in the focus-grouped, messaged-controlled reality of the era of consumer politics.

In her book Delacourt presents feasible explanations for the 2011 Conservative majority and the Orange Wave in Quebec. In marketing terms a more traditional advertising campaign launched the NDP into first in Quebec, while modern micro-targeting brought the Conservatives to majority. At the conclusion of the book Delacourt suggests that all three parties are now using the same strategies. Perhaps it will merely come down who can most effectively micro-target and mobilize voters.

The sad reality is that voters do process candidates and parties like products in many ways. Brand loyalty and partisanship are not so dissimilar. Commercial products have become more political as well, arguing that they stand for sets of values and not simple products/services for profit. The idealistic, classic liberal view of democracy is not rooted in reality, sadly. How candidates look, sound and any number of other obscure items can shape a voter's intention. I tease my mom because she's leaning towards voting NDP, but doesn't like Tom Mulcair's beard. On the other hand the beard is becoming part of the brand and being taken on by NDP partisans as a fun symbol

I would strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting a deeper understanding of how Canadian politics (and other modern democracies) work. This book is similar to Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab, but far more accessible and better framed in the world of politics than the opaque worlds of academia and advertising. Check it out, and be warned that the it might be hard swallow if you have high-minded values of democracy.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Worth Reading - September 17, 2015

Alice Funke writes how the current election sits. She concludes with an interesting point, never before have the three federal parties been in this position and are on unfamiliar ground.

From the Toronto Star, how might the Senate play out for the next government of Canada? 

This is a fun one. Foreign editors from Vice look at photos of our three main party leaders and try to guess at their personas

The NDP released their costed plans this week. CBC has an article with some highlights

The scale of the refugee crisis in Europe at the moment is difficult to understand. The war and chaos in the Middle East and broader Muslim world has had dire humanitarian impact. European states are sadly not all responding with open arms. Hungary has had a troubling slip towards the right in recent years, the National Post writes about growing despotism in the central European state

On a related note, Canadians have taken note of our own actions during this crisis and found us wanting. Former Chief of the Defence Staff offered his thoughts on the matter, as presented through the National Post's Michael Den Tandt. 

Lastly on this topic, Prime Minster Stephen Harper defends his government's position on Syria

Newcastle, Australia adopted a novel approach in repairing its downtown

Martin Regg Cohn writes how the newly seated leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario can get his party back on track

From The Economist, Canada - strong proud and free-riding. Canada owes more to the world and needs to carry its weight

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Book Review: Her Worship: Hazel McCallion and the Development of Mississauga by Tom Urbaniak

Hazel McCallion is one of the most interesting figures in Canadian politics. Until 2014 she was the mayor of Mississauga and figure of legendary proportions. She was the mayor, uninterrupted, between 1978 and 2014 and retired in her nineties. Before that she was Mayor of Mississauga she was the last Mayor of Streetsville and has been a prominent figure in Mississauga area for years. Tom Urbaniak tackles a difficult challenge - deconstructing the leadership of Hazel McCallion and the history of Mississauga. Mississauga is as much a character of this book as McCallion herself. Mississauga was a repository for the second generation of suburban development. Communities linked along the Queen Elizabeth Expressway and 401 developed splinter neighbourhoods and now Mississauga is one of the largest cities in Canada with over 700000 residents. From suburban sprawl to edge city, from monoculture to multicultural the city has evolved tremendously, yet the whole time McCallion was there.

Urbaniak explores McCallion's life to seek out her leadership style. Hazel McCallion, born Journeaux, grew up in a small town in eastern Quebec. As impressive as McCallion's longevity her meteoric rise may surpass it. She graduated high school in Quebec City and went to secretarial school. She did quite well in the business work with Canadian Kellogg. Her role expanded dramatically during the war and she was responsible for overseeing massive operations. Here is likely where McCallion developed her business-oriented style.

She married her husband, Sam, and they settled in the growing Streetsville. This is when McCallion entered politics. The area was rife with political conflict. What is now Mississauga was quickly, but haphazardly, developing. Streetsville and Port Credit were under growing pressure from the Township of Toronto. Streetsville had a dynamic local political scene. McCallion and others were part of the "reformer" school who wanted to see municipal business professionalized and development slowed. This conflict is central to the story until the move towards amalgamation in 1974. McCallion as Mayor of Streetsville fought against amalgamation, but in 1978 was elected as the Mayor of Mississauga.

This is fundamental to Urbaniak's analysis. Urbaniak supposes the following; McCallion's career could only exist in a place like Mississauga. In Streetsville she was challenge by organized, influential activists and powerful constituencies. In Mississauga the slate was wiped clean. There was no substantial media investigating. The massive city and isolated communities had trouble organizing against Mayor McCallion. After only a few terms all forms of resistance evaporated. The Mississauga Council acted in a "business-like" fashion. Decisions were made behind closed door and the democracy and civic engagement of Mississauga atrophied. 

McCallion, according to Urbaniak, developed a very special type of machine. The constant growth of Mississauga provided a stream of revenue from development fees, and few controversies. Taxes stayed low and Mississauga is only now wrestling with problems of being a major urban centre. McCallion's model began to falter towards the end of her tenure. She learned that smart growth was required, but squandered her bully pulpit to change planning in Peel Region. Mississauga now enters the difficult and more contentious time of redevelopment and intensification which may have spawned constituency groups to resist McCallion's rule.

Tom Urbaniak paints a compelling portrait of Hazel McCallion. It is laced with meaningful criticism, but it also captures her overwhelming popularity. The chapters that details her handling of the train derailment disaster captures all of these aspects in one. McCallion viewed herself as a voice of the people and accountable ultimately to them. But like many populist leaders she used it as bludgeon to get her way. Now that McCallion's term has ended I would love to see an update to this book. It was published in 2009 and would be interesting to discuss the final years and give more perspective on her legacy.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was that it put in context much of the history of Peel. Urbaniak takes pains to lay out the context of what was happening in Peel in the twentieth century. I found it a valuable explanation of how my home region came to be the way it is. Moreover the figure of Hazel McCallion is, if Urbaniak is correct, unlikely to be seen in this part of the province ever again. The political landscape has changed and the conflagration of circumstances that allowed McCallion to be the mayor for over forty years would be very difficult to repeat in part due to circumstances and in part due to her unique character.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Worth Reading - September 10, 2015

It is always distressing when politicians do not understand how our system of democracy works. Stephen Harper in a recent interview with Peter Mansbridge stated that he would resign as PM if he did not win the most seats. Steve Paikin explains why that is not how our system works

Steve Paikin is not alone in this mission, Kady O'Malley talks about both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau's mischaracterization of our system.

From City Lab, the patterns of white flight and racial segregation are still very much in play in American cities. 

Jane Taber reports on the NDP's plan to win the Toronto region in the coming election. 

I really like this piece from Maclean's. One of the things driving me crazy lately is how people make decisions. My idealistic heart wants it to be a battle of ideas and visions, but the reality is quite different

Jennifer Ditchburn reports on the sluggish Conservative campaign and growing internal fighting within the party

Queen Elizabeth II has become the longest reigning monarch in British history. God Save the Queen.

Samara Canada has released its latest report, and very valuable reading in the middle of the campaign. Titled "Message Not Delivered: The Myth of Apathetic Youth and the Importance of Voter Contact in Political Participation" explores the disconnect between engaged young people and formal politics

The Syrian refugee crisis has entered the election campaign as an issue. Stephen Harper has been defensive at Canada's limited intervention

I listened to this episode of Canadaland from July featuring Justin Ling about the PMO's media strategy and how he doesn't want to play ball anymore. Check it out

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Campaign Update: Now it Begins?

Though Canadians have hardly noticed an election campaign has been unfolding across the country for about a month. People still enjoying their summer vacations and the warm weather are now confronted with the reality that today is the first day of school and with that the parties will turn up their attention on the voters as well.

Despite a month having passed I have noticed shockingly little election activity. Everywhere I go signs are sparse. The incumbent parties tend to have a better operation off the ground and have a stronger presence at this point, but even that is pretty flimsy in my estimation. As for myself I have been working for the Brampton South NDP candidate, Amarjit Sangha. He was nominated after the writ was drawn up so we are just getting underway officially now. In fact, our campaign office is opening this Saturday at 2 PM at 8975 McLaughlin Rd, Unit 10. Very exciting!

When this campaign began it was stated that the Conservatives wanted to exploit changes in the election laws to allow them to spend a great deal of money. This is correct, but they haven't spent it evenly. We should expect heavy bombardments of advertising and other forms of campaigning in October and later into September.

The disengagement of the electorate in general is reflected in polling as well. The numbers have been stable and essentially moving within the margin of error. In many ways we are in the midst of a three-way tie. Consistently polls show the NDP with a modest lead, followed by the Conservatives and the Liberals. This morning I saw some polls suggesting the Conservatives have fallen to third, but we'll see if this pans out. First, as I said earlier in this campaign, following the national numbers is virtually meaningless. Provincial/regional breakdowns is far more useful in understanding what is happening in this election. It should be accepted that when the time comes the frontrunner will receive far more scrutiny and attacks. The Conservatives have millions of dollars waiting for the right time.

On the local scene, Brampton will be having its first debate on September 18th. All of the New Democrats and Greens have confirmed they will attend, three of the five Liberals and none of the Conservatives. I am curious to see if this tactic of avoiding the media and any form of scrutiny continues for the Conservatives going forward.

All in all it has been a quiet start to the election but this is about to change. In coming weeks I expect (hope) that signs start appearing across Canada to indicate Canadians' interest in the campaign. I am caught in a bit of a rock and a hard place for how to discuss the election. I am an active participant on one side. I cannot actively discuss all of my activities because that would be revealing internal business of the campaign. Regardless, I will do my best to write about the campaign as it moves forward.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Worth Reading - September 3, 2015

The Mayor of Brampton has called for a referendum on the Hurontario-Main LRT issue. This would only be the second referendum in Brampton's history. 

Related, from the Globe and Mail, time is running out for Brampton to make a decision on the LRT

Kyle Seeback, Conservative candidate for Brampton South (my riding), released a letter against Ontario's sex-ed curriculum and questioned the validity of transgender people. Full disclosure, I am working on a campaign to unseat Mr. Seeback.

I am in favour of the new sex-ed curriculum. I understand many are hesitant. Here is the Toronto Star's pro editorial for more context. 

Maclean's magazine wrote out the plans for out the parties can win in October

A number of campaigns are using innovative techniques to mobilize their volunteers and build leadership. Take notes!

David Akin critiques the Conservative government on his Facebook page. Akin is one of the most respected journalists covering Ottawa.

I don't normally link to Buzzfeed, but for this I'll make an exception. Tonight on CBC's Power and Politics host Rosemary Barton took the Minister for Immigration to task. Enjoy.

A beautiful Cree woman from Alberta won the Mrs Universe pageant. She then immediately used her platform to criticize Stephen Harper's government's lack of action on Indigenous issues. Gotta love it.

I love the writing on Granola Shotgun, here the author takes a look at a Kentucky town that shows that good urbanism doesn't have to be new and found on the coasts. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: Show Me a Hero, HBO Mini-Series

Normally I only review books on this blog, but I wish to make an exception and review a series that concluded this week. I will not be spoiling the conclusion of the series, but I will provide a basic framework for the story.

Show Me a Hero is an adaptation of Lisa Belkin's book of the same name detailing the story of the political and social battle in Yonkers, New York over federally-mandated social housing in white, middle-class neighbourhoods in the 1980s and 90s. The book was adapted by David Simon and William F. Zorzi who also partnered together on the hit HBO series The Wire.

The six-part mini-series approaches the conflict from a number of perspectives. The drama of the story and its main thrust comes from the political battle on city council. Nick Wasiscsko, played by Oscar Isaac, is the protagonist and the perspective we get on this conflict. Yonkers city council are united in their displeasure of having to accept the court order for social housing to be built in their white neighbourhoods. The housing question and how to deal with it becomes a central focus of Yonkers politics throughout the much of the first half of the series.

HBO has brought together a star-studded cast to play the major figures of the era. Jim Belushi plays Angelo Martinelli, long-serving mayor of Yonkers. Alfred Molina masterfully embodies the grand-standing Councillor Hank Spallone. Winona Ryder plays Council President Vinni Restiano. Three others who are notable are Jon Bernthal as the NAACP lawyer, Clarke Peters as a neighbourhood consultant and Catherine Keener as Mary Dorman, a concerned white homeowner. Keener embodies a great deal of the fear and concern of white residents while humanizing them beyond simple racism.

Similar to The Wire the other half of the story is told through a group of characters living in public housing in Yonkers. Through the eyes of four women one begins to see the difficult position those in social housing find themselves. One of the characters, Newman, an expert in social housing, gives voice to why some of these problems persist: excessive concentration leads to marginalization, poorly defined public spaces become no man's lands and a haven for drugs and crime. These portrayals go a long way to humanizing the people in the social housing projects. It is not to say they are angels and some defy the law and the social norms of white, middle-class culture, but this makes them better than simple caricatures. Still, as I watched the series you found myself more invested in their lives than the political drama unfolding.

Despite being set nearly thirty years ago the themes of Show Me a Hero are very applicable in modern-day America. Social housing remains a major issue. The case in the story is about desegregation, i.e. moving social housing units into East Yonkers rather than concentrating them further in minority neighbourhoods. I imagine this remains a controversial, and intractable problem in many American (and Canadian) cities. Another fascinating element is that this isn't just a story about black and hispanic people wanting to move into the white neighbourhoods. The characters living in social housing, and a representative of the NAACP, express concern of moving into a place that they are not wanted, away from their community. Reintegration is not as simple as "build it and they will come." Other themes in the series are class and political gridlock. Much of the opposition is couched in terms of economics (ex. preserving home values) and as stated above we see the economic impact of poor social housing on its residents. Political gridlock and intransigence is the central drama of the piece. Politicians who in backrooms express reasonable positions take outrageous positions to ensure their own popularity and electoral fortunes.

In terms of the politics it is interesting how divorced the two sets of stories are from each other. It is notable when they intrude. There are no African-Americans on the city council, no clear advocates for those characters in the story. The passionate fiery debates at city council are between a city council and angry white residents, with no advocacy group in support present. Those who would benefit from new social housing are largely unheard and disconnected from the political discussion, which I feel is a comment by Simon.

Finally, while watching this series I was frequently reminded of Steve Paikin's book The Dark Side: The Personal Price of a Political Life. Politics is not all glamour and power. The men and women who step forward to make decisions are called upon to lead. Sometimes they are pulled into difficult situations and must sacrifice their own promises for a greater public good, a public good their supporters cannot, or will not see. There is a human cost to politics and this mini-series embodies that.

I would highly recommend this series, especially to fans of The Wire. The mini-series offers a thoughtful commentary on a contentious public policy issue that rarely gets attention and humanizes people on all sides of the discussion. Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, Ilfenesh Hadera, Natalie Paul, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Dominique Fishback bring their flawed characters to life in a sympathetic way that allows the audience to approach this fight from many different angles. This story resonates strongly in North America in 2015 and should be viewed widely.