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From the throne, a campaign speech in search of a campaign

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on September 27, 2020.

In Rideau Cottage, the 11-month itch. Or so it seemed for a brief period when politicos and journalists wondered out loud whether the prime minister’s request for time on major television networks was intended to host an election call.

Instead, Justin Trudeau gave a, well, one is still not sure what speech he gave. As far as one could discern it was a pastiche of a couple of speeches, at least. One, a concerned prime minister speaking deliberately to his nation about challenging times to come, and the other an infomercial for the Liberal party best suited to middle-of-the-night television.

The speech from the throne itself did not lay out the Armageddon scenario forecast by some who especially dreaded the budget attached to it. Yet at the same time, the government’s plan largely ignored calls for immediate fiscal prudence. All justified afterward, in Trudeau’s words, because “low interest rates mean we can afford it.” Never mind the fact that it remains to be seen whether Canada truly can afford it.

Following the prime minister’s address, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was pressed by Rosemary Barton to reveal the limit of the government’s apparent capacity to spend its way through the pandemic, the point at which “enough is enough.” Freeland took an uncomfortable beat before responding sharply, “do you know when COVID is going to end, Rosie?” To say that the finance minister’s jumpy reply did not exactly inspire confidence is akin to saying that Tokyo is “crowded” or calling Michael Jordan ”a basketball player.” That is to say, a colossal understatement.

The prime minister’s campaign mindset shone through in his semi-Faustian bargain that the Liberals don’t want Canadians “to take on debt that your government can better shoulder.” A short sentence which summed up the government’s apparent mindset for governing through what Trudeau warned was likely to be another difficult year of COVID-19’s health and economic impact. As with Freeland’s comments, Trudeau’s remarks all but confirmed that when it comes to the suggestion of any roadmap for fiscal stewardship, there is no “there” there.

That is not to suggest that there was nothing to celebrate in this throne speech. The commitment to Canada-wide early learning and childcare is hugely important, and the support for businesses of all sizes is essential to keep the economy on track through the fall. At the same time, very few of the policies outlined on Wednesday are entirely new, and many seem like echoes of familiar Liberal campaign pledges.

Now that Jagmeet Singh’s NDP have agreed to support the government’s direction, we have managed to avoid the headache of an election — for now. It is nonetheless difficult to shake the sneaking suspicion that a call to the polls is looming in the not-so-distant future. Trudeau’s supposed election itch proved to be a false alarm, but his party’s campaign machine was eager to get involved in two Toronto-area by-elections, by ordaining its chosen candidates.

While both Marci Ien and Ya’ara Saks are no doubt strong contenders, the muscling-in by the central party is very telling. We should not ignore the prime minister’s flip-flop on his 2015 stance that the Liberals would maintain an open nomination process across every single riding. It seems obvious that an open nomination process, with more input from the constituency and party members, makes for more sound representation and electioneering. It does.

For Trudeau to renege on his own stance and sidestep the nomination of other potential candidates seems especially unwise, given his reputation for perceived interference and favouritism.

More than anything, the push to nominate their chosen star candidates suggests the Liberals are envisioning at least the contours of another federal race on the horizon. If the prime minister and his deputy press on with the same elbows-out approach and with so little regard for the perception of their approach to spending, Conservatives may soon start to develop an election itch of their own.

For now, the Liberals have just enough leeway to pursue their agenda, though it remains to be seen how quickly and how aggressively they will. Remember, Trudeau needs to keep a few chips in his pocket — for the inevitable election call, and crucially, the parliamentary poker that will precede it.

In a gradual shift to the centre, an opening for O’Toole

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on September 20, 2020.

Since Erin O’Toole won the leadership of the Conservative Party and became the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Air Force veteran and former cabinet minister has been busy waiting in line.

On Wednesday, after an hours-long delay, he and his family were turned away from an Ottawa-area testing centre. O’Toole continues to self-isolate after a potential exposure from a staffer, and he later obtained a test at a special site offering priority tests to MPs and family.

But O’Toole also wasted no time in pointing out that his experience was an indictment of the Trudeau government’s failed approach to COVID-19 testing. Indeed, many testing centres are finding themselves overburdened by lengthy lineups as case numbers are on the rise and students return to school.

Many Canadians may soon find themselves in the same position as O’Toole, shivering in line at a COVID testing centre. O’Toole’s latest attack may resonate with this audience, especially when combined with the imposition of new restrictions in Ontario and the second wave beginning to bear down upon us. Gone is the halo effect of competent leadership in the early days of the pandemic. Instead, we are seeing O’Toole test-driving criticisms of the government as it enters a distinctly more challenging and vulnerable phase of pandemic politics.

As his predecessor discovered, and as I wrote previously in this column, the role of opposition leader in a time of acute crisis can be difficult. You must hold the prime minister and his or her government to account, but at the same time, the rally-around-the-flag effect can insulate the government from even the mildest critique. Andrew Scheer never quite managed to find the right angle to attack Trudeau over his handling of COVID-19, because for months the prime minister cut a sympathetic figure: isolated from his wife and family, working remotely from his cottage. O’Toole’s empathic approach on display with the line-waiting — “I’m suffering because of this government’s mistakes, too”— may yet do the trick.

Even as he sharpens his weapons against Trudeau on the pandemic front, O’Toole’s other task is to sell himself to the 905 region, and an effort to grow Conservative support beyond the base. This will require a softer approach, and a tack toward the centre that is already self-evident to those paying attention.

Take, for example, O’Toole’s Labour Day greeting. “I was raised in a General Motors family. My dad worked there for over 30 years,” it begins unremarkably. But by the time O’Toole is explaining to the viewer that “GDP growth alone is not the end-all, be-all of politics” and “the goal of economic policy should be more than just wealth creation — it should be solidarity, and the wellness of families,” one gets the distinct sense that O’Toole’s own brand of conservatism will be different from that of his predecessor.

To be specific, O’Toole seems to have his eye on union voters — GM families, as he says, just like the O’Tooles of yore. This is the same strategy used to great effect by Boris Johnson in the U.K., who won his majority government in large part by breaking through the traditional, working-class “red wall” of Labour supporters. As one leftist publication concluded, “Erin O’Toole’s Labour Day message should worry the left.”

Further to this goal, O’Toole has been softening some of the hard edges that Scheer neglected. He might yet march in a Pride Parade, and he has been less categorical on issues such as carbon pricing. — indeed, his platform promised “a national industrial regulatory and pricing regime.” Polling indicates that on both these policy matters, the party will need to align with majority opinion in the 905 if it hopes to make inroads there.

There remain some challenges to contend with, including the social conservative wing of the party, which has found a new champion in Leslyn Lewis, the breakout star of the leadership campaign. She has since found a riding, in deep-blue Haldimand-Norfolk, where she will almost certainly succeed the retiring Diane Finley.

Lewis and her like-minded supporters will expect the kind of action from O’Toole that runs contra to the party’s objectives in the GTA. This is the same challenging electoral bind that vexed Scheer, but O’Toole — with his working class bona fides and his eye on the prize — may yet find a way to thread the needle.

The road to recovery

This article was originally published in the Institute of Corporate Directors’ Director Journal in September 2020.

As Canada reopens and rebuilds, we need leaders who will reject old norms and bolster public confidence by embracing new responsibilities, Jaime Watt writes.

On New Year’s Eve, 1999, John Koskinen, the chair of U.S. president Bill Clinton’s Council on Y2K Conversion, boarded a plane bound for New York City. The move was a well-timed stunt to assure a nervous public that global technology systems would not come crashing down because computers had successfully been switched to a four-digit year from the two-digit format the older software used.

Koskinen was certain that after years of planning and billions of dollars of federally funded mitigation efforts, the new millennium would not bring the mass blackouts and damage to critical infrastructure that many had anticipated. He set out to calm Americans’ worst fears and prove that total system failure had been avoided. There would be no apocalypse, and Koskinen would be in the air as the clock struck midnight, to prove that any risks of transportation collapse, among other fears, had been effectively eliminated.

With this act of certainty, the mastermind behind the United States’ Y2K disaster-avoidance plan made a crucial move toward restoring the confidence of the American public. At a time when perpetual doubt and uncertainty instilled widespread fear, Koskinen understood a crucial tenet of crisis communications. Beyond simply steering the country to safety, he had to prove that it was safe for people to engage with this brave new world and bolster their confidence in the measures he had taken. So, he boarded a flight.

Leading like it’s 1999

We find ourselves in a similar situation today to that momentous New Year’s Eve. Much like the lead-up to the Y2K “crisis”, the coronavirus pandemic has cast uncertainty and dread — albeit more valid than in 1999. Many politicians and institutions around the globe have worked tirelessly to keep the virus at bay, and it seems that we may finally begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But at this critical juncture, the prescription calls for bold leadership that can bolster public confidence at a time when distrust of both private and public institutions is abundant. We need leaders who realize that it’s time to reject old norms and take into account the interests of stakeholders in new and essential ways. We long for a John Koskinen of our own.

In any crisis, the leadership’s capacity to reclaim stability is vital. Once the crisis has been handled, how will a new sense of normalcy be reached? And how will the leadership survey the changed landscape and adapt its approach accordingly? While we may not yet have these answers with regard to Covid-19, history teaches us that the principles that guide these actions are paramount.

Looking beyond the crisis

As directors, we endeavour to ensure our organizations will remain afloat and competitive on the other side of a crisis. This pandemic has certainly forced many of us to broaden the parameters within which we should be acting and has forced us to chart a course which just months ago would have seemed unthinkable. It has driven us to a new assessment of our purpose and the reasons for our actions.

Re-examining the limited social responsibilities of business is one of the most obvious changes that has emerged from this crisis. Directors must acknowledge that public expectations of corporations have evolved and their purpose can no longer be to solely maximize profits and increase shareholder value.

Economist Milton Friedman’s old canard that the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits rings hollow in the new world in which we find ourselves. This means we must now work toward a more cumbersome end. By laying bare long-overlooked injustices, this pandemic has forced us to acknowledge the inequalities that have been perpetuated in well-meaning institutions, from corporations and government agencies to not-for-profit organizations.

It is our new responsibility as directors to steward our institutions in response to these social concerns. Boardrooms need confident leaders who will set a new precedent and redefine corporate norms. Our role will not only be to reinspire confidence in the economy, but to do so with intention. In other words, we cannot lead for the sake of leading. We must act resolutely toward a new purpose.

Expectations of the private sector have been shifting since before Covid-19. In redefining their purpose, corporations will be held responsible for helping to address exclusionary social structures, profound inequalities and other systemic issues. The Black Lives Matter movement has been a notable catalyst in drawing society’s attention to these problems. Beyond shedding light on structural racism, it has given life to discussions of other entrenched issues of inequality, including issues of gender disparity and economic inequality. Thanks to the protests and grass roots organization of these marginalized communities, conventional stakeholders are finally acknowledging that this isn’t some sort of fringe cause.

Evolving capitalism

As we emerge from the pandemic – whenever that may be – ensuring our organizations are purpose-driven and newly focused on positive contributions for all stakeholders will require support and direction. What’s more, guaranteeing that corporations are progressing beyond virtue signalling, by choosing to mirror their words with appropriate action, will be essential if we are to chart a truly new course. Leading this charge will be organizations and directors who are committed to serious action. People and leaders who, like John Koskinen, understand that leadership of a recovery goes beyond reassurances and planning. It requires uncomfortable and sometimes performative action to prove what form the future might take.

The current landscape signals that capitalism is changing, one way or the other. Boards have an important role to play in meeting this evolution by helping organizations redefine, strengthen and advance the scope of their purpose and values. This change is sure to bring uncertainty, but with it, opportunities.

As the recovery process continues, we cannot shirk the responsibility for the changes needed in our society and economy. We need to embrace them, in the appropriate context for our organizations, and accept the challenge of an evolved capitalism, to help humanity confront the demands, fears and expectations of our post-pandemic world.

Erin O’Toole’s political, policy and pandemic challenges

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue of Policy Magazine.

After a marathon vote-counting drama that saw conventional wisdom overturned, Erin O’Toole was elected leader of the Conservative Party of Canada on the third ballot by a clear margin of 57 to 43 percent over Peter MacKay. The new leader faces unique challenges unforeseen just months ago. With the COVID-19 pandemic still taking Canadian lives and upending our economy, politics and governance, O’Toole becomes Opposition Leader at a moment unprecedented outside of wartime.

To the victor belong the spoils. But also—as Erin O’Toole is about to learn—the toil.

O’Toole has won the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada in what was surely the strangest partisan competition in our history. New and relatively unknown candidates, the impact of COVID-19 on campaigning, and the persistent hanging-on of the outgoing leader all contributed to a contest about as interesting as the live stream footage of the party’s empty ballot vault in Ottawa.

With a determined effort and a persistent focus on down-ballot support from social conservatives, O’Toole has earned his win. But with that triumph come serious challenges—challenges that go well beyond the usual uphill battle facing a new leader.

By now, it is a trope to point out just how much the world has changed in 2020. But still, consider how things looked when O’Toole threw his hat in the ring to be leader in January. Canadians were focused on Iran’s downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane carrying 57 Canadians. We were contemplating which high-end area code in Canada Prince Harry and Meghan Markle might land in. Simply put, we had no idea what was coming.

But the world today looks very different, and it will take some time for our federal political parties to adjust. Now that Erin O’Toole is leading the Conservatives, what challenges does he face in the party, in the House, and across the country—and how should he address them?

First of all, the party.

While this race has proven far less divisive and the party less conflicted than in 2017, there is no denying the challenge that O’Toole faces. The ever-present divisions between social conservatives and the rest of the party have quieted down, but by no means have they disappeared. O’Toole needs a big- tent approach that brings Conservative supporters onboard while acknowledging the essential need to modernize and align with Canadians’ contemporary priorities.

Managing this uneasy alliance is always difficult, and some leaders have fared better than others. The reality is that while O’Toole owes his victory to social conservatives, he is not one of them. The truth is O’Toole has always been a progressive and so he will have to work to meaningfully address their concerns while not forgetting the three quarters of members who opted for a moderate, modern party.

He seemed to understand that in his victory speech, when he established a land speed record for distancing himself from social conservative allies and staked out a big blue tent.

Especially if there is an impending federal election, it will be quite a balancing act for O’Toole to conclusively put to bed social issues like equal marriage and reproductive rights, as Andrew Scheer was neither able nor seriously willing to do. It has become increasingly awkward to watch Conservatives across Canada contort themselves around these issues.

Andrew Scheer’s refusal to properly address climate change was undoubtedly a factor in his political demise. As Canadians overwhelmingly accept the scientific consensus on climate change, it’s no longer feasible for the Conservative Party to ignore their clarion call for some form of climate action. O’Toole ran with a plan to reduce emissions in Canada and around the world, but he would be wise to promptly begin working with other Conservatives to come up with a serious alternative to the Liberals’ carbon tax.

In this area, O’Toole has an advantage over his competitors. He provided a refreshing dose of realism on the campaign trail by acknowledging that the Tories won’t win another election without a real climate policy that speaks to Canadians. And he’s right. We simply cannot afford to lose another election by refusing to address the urgency of a planetary, existential threat.

But 2020 has also brought unprecedented, rather than familiar, challenges to the party. As COVID-19 has brought us further apart through social distancing measures, the typical vehicles for assembling supporters and reaching donors are no longer an option. Tactics will need to adapt, and quickly at that. There will be no mass conventions to rally party members, no glad-handing with donors or influential meetings of minds in stuffy rooms. But O’Toole has already figured that out. Rather than being stymied by the restrictions of the virus over his campaign, he figured out how to use it to his advantage. A judo move, if you will. He quickly mastered the art of Zoom. His campaign team used technology skillfully and O’Toole found his footing in a whole new way of campaigning.

So, he has an advantage over Justin Trudeau in that he’s already figured out how to campaign outside of traditional channels—and win. In his leadership race, he Zoom-called folks in every low-turnout riding, and he’s sure to do the same in a federal election.

We know there will be challenges for O’Toole across the board, and the House is no exception. No one doubts O’Toole’s bona fides when it comes to governing and parliamentary procedure—he’s been an MP for eight years and has served as a cabinet minister. Unlike MacKay or Leslyn Lewis, he also has the authority and platform provided by a seat in the House of Commons, starting on day one.

Conservatives are also eager to have their leader on the Hill—at least virtually—so that he can champion the party’s efforts to keep the government in check. For months, the job has fallen to Pierre Poilievre as shadow minister of finance. But with a new leader elected in a time of national—and global—crisis, it is high time for the leader of the Opposition to fulfil the very essence of the role by providing oversight and acting as a check to the government’s impulses. I look forward to Erin O’Toole’s maiden question period, as do, I’m sure, many Canadians who feel that an effective foil to Justin Trudeau has been sorely lacking in the green chamber.

Erin O’Toole will also have to reckon with a Parliament that has changed in remarkable ways since he first took office in 2012. The Bloc Québécois are back to stay it seems, and the new Tory leader will need to get better acquainted with Yves-François Blanchet and his colleagues in relatively short order, if he is going to have any say in making the weather.

But aside from issues in the party and the swift action needed in the House, O’Toole faces challenges across the country, not least of which being exactly how he will grapple with the role of Opposition leader during a global pandemic and the vicissitudes that entails.

First, he will need to reckon with a new, post-pandemic politics. Social attitudes in Canada and around the world have changed, largely in response to the grave inequalities and injustices revealed by COVID-19. The issues, too, have changed along with the tone of conversation. So have Canadians’ expectations of their leaders and parties. Here, again, O’Toole will need to address these challenges, in part by reconciling his longstanding identity as a moderate voice from Ontario, with his recent courtship of the party’s right-wing.

The final and, it seems to me, most significant challenge O’Toole faces is really how to “own” his role as leader of the Opposition while preparing to contest a federal election.

I believe that Canadians are hoping for more than just a candidate for prime minister. They want someone who will hold Justin Trudeau to account for his actions. Someone to remind them what the Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition is meant to do: contest fiscal overreach, press the government on their response to this pandemic and ensure that the mad rush of COVID legislation does not go without serious oversight.

If O’Toole can effectively do that while whirring up the party apparatus for a fight, he stands a real shot at convincing Canadians of the imperative for a Conservative government. And if the NDP and Bloc are eager to play ball, it could be as early as next fall.

It will be gruelling work, but his task couldn’t be more essential—for Conservatives and more importantly, for all Canadians.

Leading through the Covid crisis

This article was originally published in the Institute of Corporate Directors’ Director Journal in June 2020.

For Canadian organizations, surviving the Covid pandemic will be about more than staying in business. Boards and management must steer an effective response to the harsh realities and social injustices that the global crisis has laid bare, Jaime Watt writes.

In the beginning of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a plague has descended on the kingdom of Thebes that ravages crops, livestock and citizens alike. We find Oedipus, King of Thebes, imploring his subjects to stop praying and instead “act as the crisis demands,” to find a cure. The oracle at Delphi informs Oedipus that the “great pestilence” will only be lifted through an act of justice: The previous king’s murderer must be killed or exiled.

Eventually, Oedipus’s quest for justice — and with it, a cure for the medical, economic and moral devastation of the plague — brings him to the blind prophet Tiresias. Tiresias informs him that Oedipus himself is the killer and that his kingdom was founded on incest and patricide. In the end, the King, no longer blind to his own crimes, gouges out his eyes and stumbles from his palace.

While an imperfect analogy for the challenges of Covid-19, Sophocles’ tragedy bears an important lesson for our time: namely, that pandemics reveal the longest standing, most entrenched and often least visible injustices of our politics and our society. What’s more, no one is immune to these revelations. From dictators and doctors to schoolteachers and presidents, all are doomed if they remain blind to the lessons of our new reality. And that fate extends beyond our halls of government into the C-suite and the boardroom as well.

In short, we all have a role to play in addressing not just Covid-19 but also the underlying issues which it has laid bare. While Canada seems to be successfully emerging from the dreaded “first wave” of the virus, there are nonetheless crucial lessons to be learned from our initial response. But what role exactly should boards and individual directors be expected to play? With the global economy on pause since March, how can directors carve out a place in the response, beyond simply battening down the hatches and working to keep their organizations afloat?

Responding, not controlling

In my view, the fundamental tenet of effective leadership in crisis is a recognition that the popular term “crisis management” is a misnomer, and a damaging one at that. The more productive expression to use is “crisis response.” That’s because, with all the unexpected variables at play, a reactive, responsive stance is more suitable than a “management” approach, which assumes a level of foresight and control that is simply untenable.

The reality is that most crises are made up of far too many unpredictable factors to be managed effectively. And preparing to respond effectively to those “unknown unknowns”— the variables you can’t even know you don’t know — will make or break your leadership in a crisis.

Consider Covid-19. Of course, government and, to a certain extent, business leaders, could and should have anticipated some form of pandemic. But the most critical result of Covid-19 has not been the virus itself — though it has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives around the world and threatens many more — but rather its accompanying domino effect of unanticipated consequences.

The response to this pandemic has decimated many people’s already crippled confidence in international bodies such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization. In turn, what should be a global response to an international crisis has instead been characterised by parochial self-interest and infighting between China and the United States. As a result, countries like Canada have been left to fend for themselves in a global free-for-all over essential supplies. It is these kinds of issues — unpredictable in the specific but generally based on observable patterns — that leaders must make room for in their approach to crisis response.

New imperatives

Another of these domino pieces and arguably the most important factor for shaping our world post-Covid, is the moral jeopardy it has created. Moral jeopardy, a cousin of reputational jeopardy, comes about when your issue or brand is swept up in a larger societal narrative. The corporate world is full of examples, from airlines caught mistreating passengers to the #MeToo movement. Moral jeopardy is challenging because of the emotional intensity that comes with it and because once your name is attached to a larger story, you have lost control of your narrative.

Covid-19 is rife with moral jeopardy. Business owners have to weigh the burden of closing stores, offices, restaurants and factories, against the risk of exposure for employees who return to work. Policymakers cannot forget that the public health benefits of economic shutdown come with a material toll on the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens. Moral jeopardy exists for well-meaning organizations using their profile to comment on social issues exacerbated by the crisis just as it exists for those organizations that choose not to comment. We are now navigating a minefield of moral jeopardy with massive consequences for business.

I have always said that times of crisis are when directors really earn their keep. That’s because directors are the ultimate inside-outsider: They often have the enterprise-wide knowledge of senior executives without being “too close” to make difficult calls. Directors also bring outside experience which can be hugely important when making decisions with incomplete data.

Before a crisis hits, the role of the director is really to ensure that the organization has a crisis response plan in place. In the thick of it, directors are responsible for monitoring management’s response and must be prepared to take over if management is part of the problem. And when the crisis is over, it is incumbent on directors to ensure the integrity and efficacy of post-mortem evaluations.

We all realize that events of the past few months have turned our world on its head. In the wake of Covid-19, organizations will either stay fixed in their ways or adapt to the demands of our new reality. That means changes to operations as well as a re-evaluation of fundamental principles and a renewed commitment to fulfilling them. Implementing these changes will take the combined efforts of management and directors, in concert with internal stakeholders and external audiences.

In the months ahead, mistakes will be made and real prices will be paid for those mistakes. Crisis response provides an effective tool kit and a productive mindset for organizations and government alike to successfully weather the storm. But more often than not, a boardroom with purpose, clarity of vision and competent directors at the helm will equip its organization well for success in our brave new world.