Andrea Horwath and Why Black Was Not the New Orange.

Every day during the 2014 Ontario election I checked the news first thing in the morning. And almost without a miss, there was some new whacky turn of events. From the get-go this election was a head-scratcher! Why on earth, most of us wondered, did the NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, choose to defeat a very progressive budget–one that most NDPers would have embraced? Why, we all mused, would she risk giving up her status of holding the balance of power in parliament? Strategically, it seems to make no sense, and most commentators have surmised that Horwath experienced some fit of hubris that led her to think she could somehow defeat this government and come out on top as some sort of populist. But that’s not what I witnessed. On the face of it, this episode seems a mystery. I certainly did not see a woman possessed with a hunger for power. Indeed, at every step she seemed bewildered and unsure of where exactly to pitch her party’s position. Occasionally, Horwath seemed self-possessed and eloquent, but mostly she appeared listless and to be making it up as she went along.

After the debate, I suggested in one of my posts that Horwath looked like she was dressed to attend a funeral. Horwath seems to favour dark colours in stark contrast to Kathleen Wynne who embraces bright colours and bold prints. If you see Wynne on the campaign trail or during a news story, I can guarantee you someone will ask me, Did you see what Wynne was wearing?! She’s by no means a fashionista, but she is a woman who loves colour and loves to reflect her personality through her clothing (although, I think her stylists failed her as well on debate night). I suspect that since Horwath isn’t a size 2 she’s fallen into the unfortunate group of women who believe they have to wear dark, solid colours in order to appear “slimmer”–or, indeed, she may not wish for people to be commenting on her clothing at all. Of course all of this is fair enough, but when politics is almost as much about personality and likability as they are about policy, a little bit of colour would have helped her an awful lot here. To me her choice of sombre attire almost everywhere she went was a sad foreshadowing of the election results ahead. She looked and sounded lacklustre, and it was uncomfortable to watch. But I still wonder whether more was going on than meets the eye.

There is no doubt that the choice to bring down government at this time was a curious one, and I actually did not expect it to come about over that particular budget. But if we view the situation more closely, it becomes more evident why Horwath felt she needed to make the move she did. I think we owe this past election to the strategists on Wynne’s Liberal team. If we think about it, Wynne had a very flimsy mandate to continues as premier. The party is wracked with those gas plant scandals; they were a minority government; and typically when a new leader takes over a party they seek a fresh mandate through an election. It’s obvious that Wynne could not be seen to be the one to trigger such an event–she carried too much baggage from the McGuinty government. But she really did seriously need to have a proper mandate, either by being whole-heartedly backed by the NDP or by winning a fresh election. Horwath’s back was against the wall, and she was stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. How long could she get away with supporting a Liberal government and still be taken seriously? But how could she realistically vote down such a progressive budget? I have no idea what the inside scoop on this one is, but my guess is that her strategy team assumed that between Hudak’s unpopularity and Wynne’s scandal-ridden party, another minority government would be inevitable, and Horwath could reasonably still continue to hold the balance of power and still save face about propping up an almost-invalid Liberal government. It didn’t work out that way, but I’m not sure that she had a lot of choice in the matter.

Consider declining your ballot, coz 100 years ago I wouldn’t have been allowed to vote in the June 12 Provincial Election.

I’ll admit, I’m a big enough nerd about this stuff that I find voting to be an emotional event. Ontario Elections is using electronic scanners this year, so it’s not quite as romantically analog as putting your ballot into the ballot box, but I still found myself “verklempt” by the gravity of that moment when I voted last week in the advance poll. I’m partially so emotional because I always remember that my great-grandmothers were born without the right to vote in Canada, and certainly no woman could have enjoyed my right to vote just 100 years ago. Women in Ontario got that right in 1917.  I don’t want to be overly romantic about this. The history of the Canadian women’s suffrage movement is, in fact, complex and fraught with White racism and a push for prohibition, but progress happens in baby steps.

The upcoming Ontario provincial election has a lot of people seeing… well, no colour at all when it comes to party branding. Every casual conversation I have with friends and acquaintances includes a discussion about how much everyone hates all of the parties and their leadership. Like I said, I voted already in the advance poll for my riding’s NDP incumbent, and I’m happy with my choice. In my case, the Westminster System is working properly. I have a well-respected MPP, Peter Tabuns, who also happens to have a really awesome Liberal candidate on his heels. The Liberal, Rob Newman is also a decent and engaged candidate, so I happen to live in a “good” riding, where there’s a choice and a proper election happening. My vote is for the local MPP and not the provincial party. But not everyone–even some of the most politically engaged people I know, have such a lucky choice this time around.

A lot of people are feeling utterly dismayed, and I’m hearing some people muttering about not voting at all. This is highly alarming to me. Since it’s such a moving experience and one of my rights that I value dearly, I cannot fathom not exercising that right. So if you find yourself in this position, please consider DECLINING YOUR BALLOT. Indeed, yesterday’s Huffington Post posted this article on how one might go about that. As well, Steve Paiken–best known as the host of TVO’s The Agenda, and also the country’s go-to major political debate moderator, mentioned in his closing remarks after the lacklustre Ontario debate that one could decline her ballot if she wasn’t happy with any of the choices. So there’s a bit of a grass roots movement happening around this issue.

In Canada, we have a formal mechanism that allows us to express our dissatisfaction with all of the political party choices. We can formally decline the ballot. You’re probably starting to hear about Section 53 of the Ontario Elections Act by now:

Declined ballot

53.  An elector who has received a ballot and returns it to the deputy returning officer declining to vote, forfeits the right to vote and the deputy returning officer shall immediately write the word “declined” upon the back of the ballot and preserve it to be returned to the returning officer and shall cause an entry to be made in the poll record that the elector declined to vote. R.S.O. 1990, c. E.6, s. 53.

If you really feel like you have no choice this time around, please still exercise your right to vote. Just not bothering to vote at all does indeed send a message, but it’s impossible for us to differentiate between the simply not-engaged and the enraged. Your “boycott” would be indecipherable. On the hand, destroying your ballot simply results in your vote not being counted. Ironically, in that case, your attendance at the voting poll would include you in the overall voters turnout statistic. So say your most hated party wins a minority government (another minority is most likely this time round), your destroyed vote won’t go to any one party, but the statistic will show a higher voter turn-out. By destroying your ballot you would be indirectly saying that the party in power was in fact the will of the voting population. So formally declining your ballot is by far the best choice if you honestly feel that you cannot bring yourself to vote for any of the parties on the menu this time.

Please do exercise your right to vote. It’s important, even if only to register your disgust.


A brief moment of mourning for the lost art of the local candidates’ debate

There’s nothing that will burst your bubble more quickly ,when you’re practically obsessed with an election, than to attend a local all-candidates meeting. I spend A LOT of time on social media, following the local candidates and the provincial leaders, and I interact with all kinds of folk, from journalists to small-town, 0ne-issue activists online. I presently volunteer for my riding’s NDP incumbent candidate for the provincial election, Peter Tabuns–he is one super-well-loved guy! For fun, I sit around sipping wine with my friends over BBQ’d goodies, while we discuss the latest election news. So you could hardly be surprised that I kind of just assume that–well, if not exactly a majority– lots and lots and lots of people eat, think, and drink elections while they’re on.

I know they don’t. But I always fantasize I’ll find my ilk at the all-candidates meeting. But then you show up and there’s 10 people there, or more candidates than there are audience members. I actually didn’t even know about my local #TorDan meeting until two days ago. AND DID I MENTION I VOLUNTEER FOR THE INCUMBENT?! Something weird has happened over the past 20 years or so. People stopped being engaged, and everything, AND I MEAN EVERYTHING  has become about spin, marketing and the look. And hey, there’s no one person more interested in those things than me! But the very strength of the Westminster parliamentary system is that it is, in fact, quite democratic. It may not be the best system for today’s Canada, but it does have mechanisms in place for a very democratic process. Still it needs to be activated and participated in in order work properly.

So the local candidates’ meeting is where you get to have your voice heard. People say that politicians don’t care about them? Well that’s the point of our system. So that there’s someone there in the midst of the parliamentary chaos who can at least recognize your face. They exist to represent you, whether or not you voted for them. They are one step away from the leadership of the country or province–indeed, they are part of that leadership. But you do actually need to show up and let them know you even exist! We get so confused with so much American media that we can easily forget that we don’t vote for the leaders of our province or country; we vote for our local representative. I can’t argue that it’s the best system for today, but it’s actually really not so bad if you take advantage of it. Think about it. If you introduce yourself to your local candidate, you are only one degree of separation from the leader of the province or the country. That’s a pretty good deal.

Alrighty. So enough of that soap boxy stuff. Speaking of soap, as I said, my little bubble is appropriately burst. I went to my local all-candidates meeting tonight. I was a few minutes late, but I didn’t think it would matter, given all the thousands of people that would be packed into the gymnasium, who would possibly notice?! So there I was clop-clop-clopping in my awesome vegan Australian heels, while one of the candidates was answering a question. Everyone turned to look. I mean, there were maybe 25 people at best in attendance. I sat at the back feeling like a major jerk.

The Candidates were perched on uncomfortable-looking school-chairs up on one of those awesome mid-20th-century proscenium arch stages. I figured I couldn’t actually be all that late since only three of the candidates was actually on stage. But then I realised that the others just weren’t coming, including the Conservative Naomi Solomon and the Green candidate Rachel Power whose nomination form I signed because I so want a Green presence in the province. I was there to support my candidate Peter Tabuns, the NDP incumbent, and I was pleased to get to see the Liberal candidate Rob Newman, who is a terribly likable fellow. The third guy was from the Canadian’s Choice Party–they seem to think they’re American, and keep referring to themselves as the Independent party. Anyway, his name is John Richardson, and he is every bit a cowboy. I’m so glad I went to this meeting just for him!

Without getting back on my soapbox, let me just say that this was just the kind of theatre I love. Richardson answered every question lobbed his way by standing up, slumping to one side after hiking up his belt and heaving a great sigh. I can’t tell you how endearing I found this gentleman. He has a hint of John Wayne in his cadence, and of course, he came in knowing that anyone who would bother to show up for this type of a meeting is probably not going to vote for him anyway. But he answered the questions, with that heaving sigh, and the OBVIOUSNESS that such a true conservative was never going  to go for such and such or whatever. But hey, he wants to abolish post secondary tuition, which does cause me to prick up my ears. Of course, he is a conservative, so he’s thinking in ROI–and so other conservatives should really lend an ear here. Unfortunately, Richardson is a true fiscal conservative, so the cost of free tuition would be paid for by pretty much taking the state out of every social institution we tend to hold dear in Canada. For instance, he doesn’t feel that the state (or province) should be in any way involved with child care. You know this schtick. Richardson pretty much had the same approach. He just came shy of saying “Ditto” to every question. But he was a good sport. And I’m fond of him.

The Liberal candidate is an eminently likable fellow. He’s that guy when your BFF texts and says she’s met “the ONE” that you hope she’s talking about. He was decked out in some nice relaxed-fit jeans and a well-pressed, casual, button-down cotton shirt that appropriately mimicked the colour of a fresh-burst early-summer cherry. Rob Newman actually might give Peter Tabuns a run for his money. Unlike the affectation of boredom that Richardson sported, Newman has the energy of someone who really digs politics, and he does have a reasonable expectation of winning the riding. He really wants this gig for realz. And his enthusiasm was palpable in every answer he gave. He has an earnestness that I’m inclined to like. And he’s smart. I think he handled some of the questions tonight better than Wynne did during the Big Debate–but the stakes were lower for him, so I don’t want to overstate things. He did come up with a rather innovative idea over the course of the evening. I’m not sure where or if it will stick in a Liberal platform, but he floated the idea of a capital gains tax break for non-home-owners. It was a bit of sideways response to a concern about the lack of affordable housing in our riding, but he segued into the idea with some pretty awesome skill. I was, as usual, trying to tweet with my god-awful Samsung Galaxy Note 3, so I almost tuned out of this topic, since it had been covered earlier in the evening. But then, BAM! Rob drops the tax-break bomb. It’s an interesting idea that would take the rabid desire for home ownership out of the equation for a lot of people who are just trying to save for their old age. It is a rather ingenious fix to the overheated housing market–would that help affordable housing… that’s not so clear. But I am taken–although not convinced–by Newman’s desire to take some of the fervid obsession off of housing as a retirement savings plan.

As I said, I’m volunteering for Peter Tabuns, so I can’t likely be as objective about him. I took a lot of time and talked to lots of people before I chose who to volunteer for. I didn’t take the choice lightly–in fact it was a sobering choice. I don’t see myself as a lifelong NDPer (although I normally tend to vote that way). So to me Peter is a statesman. When I met him, I felt like I was in the presence of someone who has seen a lot of the world. He has been in the trenches. His performance tonight was like a pro playing in an off-season tennis match. Genial and friendly, but truly out of the other guys’ leagues. Honestly, he was a little bit boring from a certain standpoint, but only because he understands the mechanisms of parliament and local politics so intimately that his answers to questions tended to be process and policy based.

On the other hand, I do keep hearing from people that they never see him or hear from him. I’m not sure how to remedy that. I do know that Rob, Naomi and Peter have been pounding the pavement pretty hard and that they all have campaign offices in the hood. So if they haven’t managed to get to you, then please do drop by their offices to get to know them. I’d be happy with any of the three as my MPP. I went for Peter for the reasons I’ve stated. I think Rob is a gem, and I hope we get to keep him around. Naomi is obviously a long shot, but is a really lovely person from what I can tell so far…. and I hope I’ll get to know her more.

I tried my best to live-tweet with my god-awful Samsung during the meeting. If you’re interested, check out the #TorDan on twitter. Please do comment below and I’ll do my best to answer questions.





In the Ontario Debate, it wasn’t the leaders’ stylists who won the day.

During the one and only candidates debate for the present Ontario provincial election, the twittterverse went a little wild. And since a broadcast debate is, for all intents and purposes, a visual platform, it didn’t take long for those of us watching to get right at critiquing how awful the thing looked.

Well, the set was lacklustre at best, but okay. Its designer used a monotonous tone of lavender and grey that the leaders’ stylists curiously at best chose to mimic, and in the NDP’s case, chose to completely ignore! The Toronto Star’s movie critic (huh? Oh well, everyone’s a critic!) said that” The set looked like it was dressed by the same colour-blind trolls who made the Coxwell subway station.” I don’t entirely agree. In fact, the palette would have worked well as a backdrop to each of the parties’ colours. I’m not sure it’s fair to blame the set, when it’s the stylists who failed to make use of what they were given. Kathleen Wynne looked like she was meant to fade into the background, so much so that all we could really see were her curiously flailing hands and those god-awful horn-rimmed glasses she insists on wearing (she desperately needs different frames! cf my first post.)

Someone joked on twitter that Hudak looked like he was auditioning for the role of an undertaker. Again. Don’t get where that dude was coming from. I took one look at Horwath and thought, Is she going to a funeral after this?! This set was practically screaming for the hipster-friendly colours of the NDP, and Horwath’s stylists sent her out in black? I’m utterly baffled by Horwath’s people’s choice. During the establishing shot, I almost thought the set had been designed in the NDP’s favour. I can’t understand why they didn’t optimize this opportunity. Costume–I mean, attire means a lot more than people seem to realise!

Not surprisingly, within nano-seconds of the debate’s moderator, Steve Paiken, announcing that this debate had been uncharacteristically light on time (!!), [and he followed up with the directive that we should all vote even if we choose to decline the ballot (whoa subtext!)], partisan tweeps were claiming that their candidate had “clearly” won the debate. The TV spin continued on the panels that followed the debate, so it was hard for an innocent bystander to get a sense of who might have “won”. I think maybe the consensus on this one is: “none of the above.” The suffered murmurs amongst my progressive friends was that Hudak had won. I’m not so sure that’s true. But he did do the least worst–or something to that nature. I think part of that sub-conscious win can be ascribed to his costume–erm, attire. There’s not a lot guys can really reasonably do in this situation, and Hudak’s team did… well, okay. He sported a dark suit and tie that almost matched the dominant lavender of the set. This is an effective use of colour. Where Wynne faded into the set, and Horwath just blatantly rejected all colour, practically screaming, “I’m no fun!”, Hudak complemented it. The use of colour created a subconscious sense that he “belonged” or was an essential element of the evening, connected naturally to his surroundings. Costume designers pull this trick all the time in theatre and film design. It’s not an accident, and the je ne sais quoi sense about Hudak winning the debate has something to do with this.

I’ve got more on the debate in progress. Please stand by….


Would the Real Stephen Harper Please Stand Up?!

Things have not been pretty in Ottawa lately. The senate scandal is dogging the Conservatives; there’s been some mud-slinging at Justin Trudeau for accepting speaking fees; and even Tom Mulcair seems to have “Dukes-of-Hazzarded” himself across Parliament Hill one day!

In an earlier post, I examined the performances of both Mulcair and Harper during question period. And there’s no doubt that both men were putting on well-studied performances. Interestingly, someone mentioned in passing to me that Prime Minister Harper seems to be some sort of a sociopath. But if you agree with my previous post, Harper’s fidgety performance on the first day of Mulcair’s line of questioning would certainly belie that notion. Still, Harper rarely seems to show any emotion in public, and often seems staid and awkward even. It’s a stance that does not increase his likeability outside of his base.

Someone on his communications team seems to want to change some of this. In the midst of the rising heat over Senator Duffy’s “gift” of $90,000 (CAN) from Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, a YouTube video appeared and quickly went somewhat viral–well, in the political circles I follow. It even made the mainstream news.

The video was shot the night before the last election and reveals a side of Harper that most people don’t really know about. He is seen doing various comedic impersonations of past Conservative and Reform leaders, including Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark and Preston Manning. Some found it mean-spirited, but many were surprised to see this side of our Prime Minister. Most pundits were a bit skeptical about the timing of the appearance of the video of course. It was a naked attempt to divert attention away from the dirty little scandal that continues to unfold in the senate.

Harper also made Canadian history when he (or at least a staff member) live-tweeted the recent cabinet shuffle. He also tweeted about his visit to Britain and Ireland when he attended the last G8 meeting. In this tweet, he appears drinking his own brew of Guinness. This did not end up being without controversy either, but it should be interesting to watch over the coming months how the Conservatives make use of these social media tools to offer up another face of our seemingly inscrutable prime minister.

A Spectacular Spectacle of Spectacles

This whole Canadian political couture thing began for me some time during 2010. It was then that Stephen Harper started sporting his frameless eyeglasses almost exclusively. Anyone who follows these sorts of things will note that there is something sort of wooden about Harper. He’s most likely an introvert who doesn’t particularly like the spotlight. Like him or not, though, this says something about a man who is so committed to his ideology that he is willing to take on that spotlight no matter how uncomfortable it makes him. But being uncomfortable in public does not win votes nor popularity. And so, as we may all uncomfortably recall, his handlers set about showing the hapless man in fuzzy blue sweaters. At the time, a lot of us wondered, What were those handlers thinking?! Did it have something to do with Bill Cosby?! Most people like and trust Cosby, and he is famous for sweaters. Maybe sweaters are the key to likeability! Or not.

Thankfully, the blue sweaters were dropped quite quickly after an awful lot of mocking that Harper may never live down.

During the 2008 election, though, a minority of Canadians (who bothered to vote) trusted Harper. He managed to squeak out another minority government that was only slightly larger than his previous 2006 government (which was the smallest minority in Canadian history). By March 2011 a non-confidence vote in the House of Parliament brought down his government and an election was called. I’ll talk in other posts about this fascinating election, but for Harper lots had changed–not the least of which, most likely, was the 2008 stock market crash and the onslaught of the Great Recession.

English: Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada

English: Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the ...

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Commander’s Palace restaurant Monday evening, April 21, 2008, after attending the North American Leaders’ Summit dinner in New Orleans. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Surprisingly, somehow or another, Stephen Harper not only managed to live down a non-confidence vote and heading a government that was found in contempt of parliament to boot, he actually came out of the election with a majority government. Clearly, something significant had shifted for Canadian voters. The message Harper hammered home, of course, was his ability to steer Canada through the treacherous waters of the flailing world economy. Though I don’t want to be too precious with this eye-wear thing, I do think those frames played a small but crucial role.

Like I said, during 2010, I started noticing that Harper was wearing those non-glare frameless lenses more often–and he does now almost exclusively. And I also noticed that I, on some unconscious level, found the man more likeable! When I started poring over photos of Harper, I realised that he happens to be one of those contact-lens-wearers whose eyes seem to grow cold in photographs or under high lighting conditions like those required for video ops. There’s something about his eye-wear that subtly softens Harper’s look. Those frameless lenses somehow make him more approachable and trustworthy, and it ‘s hard to believe that the blue-sweater posse (or whoever replaced them) didn’t play some sort of a role in the image makeover.

Preston Manning (former leader of the Reform P...

Preston Manning (former leader of the Reform Party of Canada) at British Columbia Universities’ Model Parliament – Victoria, BC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, when it comes to makeovers in Canadian politics, most people will automatically think of Preston Manning, the original makeover King. Remember Manning before the makeover? His oversized eyeglasses seemed laughable and made him appear to be some sort of parochial backwoods wannabe. In 1992, John Cruickshank, in The Christian Science Monitor, suggested that though Manning was a “straight shooter,” his glasses gave him “the look of a perpetually startled owl.” Then came the haircut and the laser eye surgery. And today, Manning is respected as a Canadian statesman.

Former interim Liberal leader, Bob Rae has also eschewed wearing his eyeglasses, except to read. If the geeky professorial look gained purchase in the early 1990’s, clearly something has changed. In Rae’s case, as in Manning’s, the owlish eye-glasses detracted from his general likeability. The Conservative Party were certainly aware of the spectacle of spectacles when they released this attack ad against Rae last year:

YouTube mocksters, Almost Politics, picked up on the focus on Rae’s geeky glasses during his tenure as Ontario’s Premiere in this satirical response to the Conservative attack ad, with a whining narrator pointing out that “Rae wore hipster glasses unironically!” So what do you think? Harper’s roots are in the Reform Party of Canada, which was lead by the mac-daddy of Canadian makeovers. Do Reformers have a fetish about spectacles?!

On style and politics…

It is precisely style… that remains an enduring feature of politics. In fact, the familiar rituals of candidates, voters and analysts are what constitute each election, with remarkable similarity in scripts and underlying logics across time. In any given election cycle, the populace collectively identifies those problems that threaten their way of life…. In response, each candidate is called upon to echo these concerns and identify how he [sic] would be able to rescue ‘the people’ from such looming crises. In this way, elections are defined by the performances of candidates and the audience of voters, which are always made meaningful by the local myths that sustain polity.

Elizabeth Helen Essary and Christian Ferney “Pomp and power, performers and politicians: The California theatre state” in American Journal of Cultural Sociology [2013] 1, 96-124