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Dispatches: Israel Spring 2015

As a guest of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, I was in the country for the unexpected re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Even Mr. Netanyahu’s closest strategists were surprised: The night of the election, we were joined at dinner by his campaign manager, Aron Shaviv. Although he has an international reputation for winning election campaigns for centre-right candidates, as we chatted over dinner even he failed to realize how resonant was Mr. Netanyahu’s eleventh-hour call to action.

The problem, he said, was that Likud voters had been tempted by a ‘package deal’ — they believed they could vote for a centrist party within a potential right-wing coalition but still get Mr. Netanyahu as the prime minister.

Still, the decision to scare Israelis into voting — and voting for him — by casting Arab voters as a threat, stirred an international controversy. Such tactics may be expedient in the short-term, but they can also carry a steep price.

Now, as efforts to build a coalition government get underway in Israel, the extent to which Mr. Netanyahu’s strategy has poisoned his own chalice, remains to be seen.

In conversation with… John Baird

After a career that has spanned provincial and federal politics, minority and majority governments, and an impressive range of cabinet portfolios, the Honourable John Baird surprised many Canadians — and maybe even the Prime Minister — when he resigned in early February. Navigator Managing Principal Will Stewart sat down for a conversation with his former boss — and long-time friend

You’ve just retired as Minister of Foreign Affairs. What got you interested in politics in the first place?

I think I was always interested in watching the news or reading the paper, but in Grade 7 I had a teacher who was very political and ran for the nomination when I was in Grade 8. That was the beginning of my interest. I became even more interested in Grade 9.
Then you went off to university. I understand you were active in politics around a Liberal campaign by former Ontario premier David Peterson?
Yes, two friends and I went to protest David Peterson, who was campaigning for the local Liberal candidate. This candidate was running against a senior cabinet minister who wasn’t going anywhere. His name was Peter Milliken. We were handing out copies of a Globe and Mail editorial basically going after the Liberals for saying that social programs would disappear under free trade. Peterson was appearing at a public mall so we thought it was reasonable to approach him. I tried to approach him to question him about this, and the OPP took me away.
Was that your first real campaign?

Not really, I had already worked on campaigns and was president of the youth wing of the party.
You first ran for office when you were 25 in Nepean. The first time with your name on the sign. What led you to that?
I think I wanted to run provincially since I was about 14. The first time I actually thought about running was for about three hours in the 1990 election, but I didn’t think I could win so I thought maybe I had better finish university. That being said, I had always wanted to run provincially in that riding and I was uncomfortable with my ambition.
So, I resigned from the executive in the summer of 1994 and started a run for the nomination, sold a lot of memberships, and I eventually got the nomination.

That was a contested nomination as well, was it not?
We didn’t even have a computer in my headquarters when I first ran. We had no social media. Without the Internet, we had to physically send around 4,000 videotapes because that’s how those things were done. And that was considered cutting edge.
How has technology changed campaigns?
We certainly spend a lot more money now. We spend more time and effort on social media than we ever did on advertising in the Nepean newspaper. It’s much more professional, too. My first campaign was entirely staffed by volunteers where, with my last campaign, we even paid someone to ID the voters’ list before the election was called. So it’s much more professionalized now, even at that riding level.
The volunteers who came in and manned the phones and stuffed the envelopes for every campaign since Diefenbaker, are they still around?
The term ‘activism’ is deceptively sensational. Institutions are always consulting with management. And being engaged and active isn’t really ‘activism.’
A lot of the people who volunteered 20 years ago when I started just aren’t around, let alone active in the party anymore. That, and the fact you just don’t use envelopes anymore — other than for fundraising letters. Instead, you correspond with emails and social media.
How has technology changed the relationship between politicians and their constituents?
Well, you can get in touch with a lot more people, a lot quicker and at a much lower cost. At the same time, though, it’s not as personal as getting a letter.
What do you consider to be your biggest successes at the provincial political level, before you made the switch to federal politics?
Learning the ropes. I grew a lot. I learned how to set priorities and get things done. When you make mistakes as a provincial parliamentary assistant, fewer people see it — certainly as compared to being a cabinet minister in Ottawa. There’s a smaller press gallery. There’s not as much focus, not as much attention.
How did your time as a backbencher in Ontario shape your future in politics?
I really hated being a backbencher in Opposition. Yes, you’re obviously in the House and representing your constituents. But you’re an Opposition Deputy House Leader — which I did not like. I was getting up every day to complain and criticize, rather than getting things done. Honestly, I did not find it fulfilling. When I was a parliamentary assistant in the first term you could still at least be positive and focused and get a lot of things done for your riding.
What are your favourite memories as a cabinet minister federally or provincially?
Federally, it was the opportunity to see and experience things that few other people have done. That ranges from walking through a slum in Mumbai, looking at a development project that Canada is supporting, or visiting a Syria refugee camp in Jordan. Ultimately, you saw people who became human giants, whether it was Malala Yousafzai or so many others who have shown remarkable and extraordinary courage.
You were one of the first Western leaders to visit Libya during the revolution there. What was it like in the immediate aftermath?
It was pretty surreal because Colonel Gaddafi was still alive, but he had fled. There were all sorts of people who lived across the street and who had never been inside the huge compound of buildings. Seeing his home, which U.S. President Ronald Regan had bombed in the 1980s was rather extraordinary, to say the least.
What about the situation in Ukraine? You were in Independence Square shortly after the fighting had stopped.
I was there before and after it began. Before, it was really extraordinary because I had government security in the middle of an anti-government protest. There were tens of thousands of people in what was, really, a revolution. There were people burning wood in oil drums to keep warm. It was an extraordinary time.
What do you think would most surprise people about political life? What are a few of the most common misperceptions about political life?
Well, when you’re in government you have to make dozens of decisions every single day. In Opposition, you don’t have to make decisions and you can just pick and choose what issues you will focus upon. I’ll make hundreds of decisions in a week and, just like anyone else, there’ll be times when I don’t make the right call. But if you obsess over every decision you never get anything done.
You get comfortable with making the wrong decision?
While I prefer to collect all the information and take a reasonable amount of time to reflect, it is not feasible to take months to make every decision. The entire government would come to a complete halt. I’d rather people criticize me for what I do than for not acting.
What would you say was amongst the greatest challenges you faced in your career?
The scrutiny.
In your everyday life? You mean grocery shopping and being recognized?
It’s funny. When you’re wearing a suit and tie people come up to you, recognize you, talk to you. If you’re in jeans and a golf shirt and a baseball cap, people tend to leave you alone.
Anything you’d change about your career, anything you’d do differently?
When you make hundreds of decisions every week there are obviously decisions that, if you had more information, as a Monday morning quarterback, you’d do differently. I’ve been very fortunate and (hopefully) wise on timing. Running with Mike Harris and supporting Mike Harris in the 1995 election was a good call. Working with and aligning myself with Jim Flaherty, while politically unsuccessful in the short term, I think was the right move. Then getting behind Stephen Harper and running federally, obviously that was a good call.
What are you most looking forward to in your new life?
I’m keen to be successful, whether it be professionally, doing non-profit work or in my personal life. I’m keen to make a contribution in all areas. I’m keen to take on a new challenge. I think it’s better to go two years too early than two minutes late. Everyone has a different clock and some people do stay on too long.

The Little Red Wagon was used to mark the 2000 launch of the Ontario’s Promise program when John Baird was provincial Minister of Children. It brought corporations, organizations, foundations and non-profit agencies together to deliver an agenda for youth development.

Shuffling the Deck

Winston Churchill once declared that: ‘The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.’

It may be a snappy line, but these days politicians don’t have the luxury of disregarding anyone. The ‘average voter’ is no longer a thing. Even within seemingly clear regional, demographic, ethnic and gender groups, there are myriad shades and variations.

That’s precisely why political parties spend such vast amounts of time and money trying to figure out what voters want — or think they want.

In an election year, each scrap of voter insight is critical. That’s all the more true given the extent to which technology allows parties and politicos to tweak every plank of every platform to optimize their appeal.

For that reason, ENsight — Navigator’s government relations sister company in Ottawa — has undertaken a comprehensive cross-country survey to get a sense of the issues that are top-of-mind in 2015. After all, it’s the best indicator of the policies that will shape the agenda for whichever party is elected.

With a fall election looming large, we’ve compared initial 2015 election survey results with the issues that resonated most as Canadians exited the polls in 2011. Here’s a first cut of the deck:

Jobs, Taxes & The Canadian Economy
The Harper government received a ‘green light’ to move on economic issues. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper was still viewed as somewhat polarizing, Canadians, including his opponents, perceived him as a sound economic manager. With the help of then-finance minister Jim Flaherty, Harper and his government were perceived to have deftly handled the economic crisis. On that score, Canadians were clear: they strongly trusted Harper on economic issues.
In the 2011 election, the Harper government hammered home the importance of ‘jobs, growth and long-term prosperity’ with effective ad campaigns. Survey results showed that with a new majority government, the Conservatives could continue their push to lower taxes, stimulate job creation and cut red tape for Canadian businesses; ultimately, Canadians expected Harper’s government to remain a friend to businesses large, medium and small.

Canada on the World Stage
By 2011, the global financial crisis was still reverberating in Canada and around the world. The scale and scope of the crisis reinforced the fact that however hard sovereign nations tried to control their domestic economic fortunes, international capital markets and trade made that almost impossible.
Even though Canada and the Canadian banking system were less damaged by the collapse and the subsequent recession than many others, the toll on major trading partners — in particular the U.S. — made it clear that boundaries and borders no longer offered protection.
Voters in 2011 expressed an acceptance of that new reality, although the lingering mistrust of foreign direct investment continued. It was an issue that was set to resurface as the world economy, and demand for oil and gas and metals, began to recover.

Because health care is largely a provincial jurisdiction, and because economic issues trumped all others in 2011, it did not take centre stage in the last federal election.
The Conservatives promised to renegotiate the 2004 Health Accord, but to abide by the existing commitment to increase provincial funding by six per cent annually until that happened. They also won the day by extending fitness tax credits for children and adults alike, linking this to evidence that improved fitness could help to reduce some long-term health-care costs.
In 2011, Canadians, particularly aging baby boomers, seemed open to the idea of an expanded, two-tier health-care system. There were, however, some conditions. Many viewed Jack Layton, the newly minted Official Opposition leader, as the right one to preserve the Canada Health Act. In its platform, the NDP promised to train 1,200 more doctors and 6,000 more nurses. Election results showed that Canadians were willing to explore innovative options for health-care delivery if it increased efficiency and saved money. However, they remained wary of an American-style health-care model.


Jobs, Taxes & The Canadian Economy
Initial data from ENsight’s recent cross-country election survey is clear: Canadians see an urgent need for the government to focus on job creation, a balanced budget and lower taxes. And while Canadians are somewhat optimistic, they reveal significant anxiety about the current period of economic sluggishness. Many think we’ve gone from economic stabilization to economic stagnation and there is a clear desire for a government that will kick-start the economy.
While Canada’s economic prosperity is a top priority, there is a warning for the Harper government in the results: 35% believe the Prime Minister is headed in the wrong direction. Whether Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau or NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair can capitalize on this remains to be seen; however, results suggest that Harper retains credibility as a proven economic manager and as a safe steward in tough economic times. Canadians, by and large, indicate they trust him to handle the economy, balance the budget, and pragmatically react to plunging oil prices and a weak Canadian dollar.

Canada on the World Stage
Canadians still view international trade as an important component of Canadian economic prosperity. More than ever, Canadians have become a nation of ‘free traders’ who believe that government must look beyond the U.S. for investment and partnership. Only 17% of survey respondents believe that Canada should maintain its more traditional focus on the U.S. Fully two-thirds (68%) believe we must look to new economies and new trade deals for opportunities and growth in the future.
While international trade is important for respondents, no monitoring of issues could avoid Canada’s role on the world stage as it relates to terrorism and the ongoing fight against ISIL. 64% of Canadians see anti-terror legislation as a priority in the lead-up to an election, with 34% seeing it as an ‘urgent priority.’ Despite this urgency, only a slight majority of Canadians support the extension of the ISIL mission. Interestingly, respondents in Quebec, the province with arguably the most heated discourse regarding Islamic fundamentalism, expressed little interest in engaging with the overseas fight against ISIL.

Building on the opinion shift first seen in 2011, almost 70% of respondents today believe a new approach to health care — even a two-tiered one — was either an urgent or important priority for the government.
Although research suggests that Canadians have a somewhat more positive view of the national health-care system than they did in 2004, timely access remains a persistent issue.
Early polling suggests that voters recognize that the existing health-care system and its insatiable demand on public finances is unsustainable. Voters show an openness to at least considering a two-tier system that alleviates costs but maintains access for all. At the same time, with a voter focus almost exclusively tied to the economy, it is unlikely that options for health-care delivery are likely to gain momentum or form a high-profile component of policy platforms for any of the parties.