Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Having been through Albuquerque and Seattle now, I can say that the Americans have embraced microcredit in a more full way than we have. And the impact has been huge upon some personal stories. 

It has been said that if you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem. And if you owe the bank fifty million dollars, then the bank has a problem. It is true that for many working families, access to credit became a significant problem after the economic slowdown. For many people, that means that the small business that gave them an alternative to a dead-end job or a vulnerable industry was out of reach. 

In town after town, we've seen community groups who have stepped up to fill this void. They don't just rally the community to loan money -- microcredit agencies are building grassroots organizations that can offer mentorship and social capital to potential entrepreneurs. Often the loan is accompanied by initial workshops, reviews of business plans and a relationship that can last several months. Frequently the loan is delivered in instruments designed to accelerate one's credit score so that the business can grow. 

The results are impressive. In bad economic climates, there is still a 50% success rate for many lenders! and over half of the successful businesses have employees two years out. The community-based nature of the sector allows for organizations tailored to unique needs of some underrepresented groups -- we met organization leaders with expertise in serving immigrant families in Seattle, working out of what was once known as "the Coloured Y" in Charleston building businesses for African-American women, and a group in Albuquerque with a real success story among Hispanics. 

What they have in common is a determination to help clients succeed in a way that goes beyond traditional lending instruments. Cynics could reasonably note that the growth of microcredit and small entrepreneurial venture is a growth market because more secure traditional employment in industrial sectors is declining. They would be right, but it is still inspiring to see community leaders step up when the macroeconomic problem doesn't have easy solutions.

There would have to be an attitude shift in government to make it work here -- trusting local NGOs, accepting some risk, and a move away from bailing out failing businesses. One policy shift would seem eminently sensible. Most US states now allow unemployment or social assistance benefits to continue if the recipient is starting a businesses through an approved microlender. Even this change might move us even further in the right direction of making social assistance a hand up, instead of a trap with few ways out. 

In Fredericton South, Let's Get Creative Together

I'm running for the NDP nomination in the riding of Fredericton South.  And I'd like to answer the questions I've been asked the most often as I've met with people one on one to let them know I'm thinking of running, and to ask for their support.

Why would you come back? Why now? And why the NDP?

I don't have a glib, sound bite-like answer to those questions. But I have some answers, and I'm going to share them with you.

Why the NDP? That's the most common question, and the easiest. It starts with this -- I believe that Dominic Cardy is the leader most qualified to be Premier of New Brunswick.

It has become trendy since Frank McKenna left for parties to choose leaders who don't have a firm grasp of policy or a clear sense of issues. The common reassurances are that policy "doesn't matter to voters", that the new leader "can learn all that", or "they can hire people to do that". None of those things are true, and you may have noticed that we've been throwing premiers out pretty quickly since Frank was here. Leaders like David Alward aren't breaking promises and changing positions because they're bad people. They break promises because they had no idea what the jobs entailed before they won.

I've been around enough to know that at some points the doors close and the judgement of the guy at the top matters. And I can imagine Dominic behind the desk. He cares enough to talk to people like grownups, speak in specifics, and isn't scripted the way other Opposition leaders have been.  That's part of the reason he's been attracting strong people like Brian Duplessis to run, community leaders who have a track record of success, experience and principle.

No leader has all the answers, but Dominic is raising the right questions. He's challenging our old political culture with real reforms that are getting turned into law, rightly noting that provinces with good government attract more investment. He's asking why we spend more time bailing out failing companies than nurturing entrepreneurs. He's talking about municipal reform not from the perspective of merging rural communities, but giving cities like Fredericton the tools they need to develop affordable housing, attract business, and build infrastructure.

He's shown he can take clear stands, like his ability to say clearly from day one that changing pension plans for retirees without negotiation is wrong, and he considers a deal to be a deal.  More cynical opposition leaders were going three months dodging the question by calling for a legal opinion which they never got, taking polls to see if they should claw back more retirement benefits, and then failing to learn the Legislature rules in order to oppose the government's bill.  The reason Dominic was ready sooner, I suspect, is he was willing to start with doing what he thought was right instead of what would be good politics. And maybe, if we reward Dominic for talking about issues and specifics, politicians will start to see that good policy makes good politics. 

So that's why I've decided that the NDP is the home for me, and why I believe this leader deserves full support from me. 

Which leaves the question of why go through the trials of running, and why now?  It's no secret that I've enjoyed my practice and found other fun ways to contribute to my community, like starting up our community theatre company, coaching basketball, and doing work with some great community groups and boards. Why not enjoy the perks of having had the job without the long hours and (sometimes deserved) criticism. 

There are some things I'd like to work on. I love Fredericton, I chose this town as the place to raise a family.  I believe in it, and we can make it even better together.

Fredericton has unique economic needs, with more emerging industries, startups, and research-based companies than elsewhere. Yet these sometimes get ignored provincially -- we are behind other jurisdictions in terms of support for early investors, commercializations of R&D and support for founders. I'd like to set up a team of Fredericton Founders, entrepreneurs who can help get the best legislation and ideas for startups and small business to me so I can work across party lines to make it policy. 

I'd like to continue the work we started, a whole bunch of us, on fighting poverty. I'm proud of the reforms to social assistance, minimum wage and First Nations education that happened in my time in cabinet. We could do so much more. We have a mayor who's desperate to work on homelessness but no real provincial partners. We have councillours ready with solutions on public transit to connect jobs to affordable housing, but no champions to move it forward. So many jurisdictions are creating community-based microcredit to help families escape poverty, and we have a team at Social innovation who can create and innovate. I'd like to give families in poverty a voice in the Legislature.

We could actually do post-secondary education right as well.  The last set of reforms put the focus on administrative issues like shared services. That was fine, but we need to talk about issues like faculty recruitment, affordable tuition and manageable student debt, and supporting research.  We should be pushing Ottawa for the ability to have our own immigration policy to keep skilled graduates here so they can create and attract jobs. For Fredericton, this isn't just a social issue, it's an economic one, and the campus needs a representative who knows the campus. 

So, yes, there are issues. But there's something bigger creating, as others have said, a fierce urgency to now. 

I don't want my generation to be the first one to fail to leave our kids more opportunity than we had ourselves. But I fear we are on the way there, and when I watch the Legislature today I see a politics smaller than our challenges.  The opposition reads a grim headline and blames government without offering solutions. Government reads a list of the other party's failings. They prosecute the opposing colour but never discuss ideas. I don't want an election where one party offers the status quo plus fracking and the other offers the status quo. I hope we can have a debate about how we do better together.

No one MLA changes the culture alone. (I'm pretty sure that when I was there the Legislature didn't turn into Masterpiece Theatre). But I've always believed an MLA's job doesn't just mean attending church suppers and reading party talking points. It means trying to raise the level of debate, using the seat to give forgotten people a voice, and earning your salary by trying to propose ideas. And when I see MLAs proudly saying they don't even read the bills they vote on, it doesn't seem we're getting the government we deserve. 

Right now, the two old parties are full of guys who want to be Gordon Ramsey but don't want to learn to cook --they seek the rush of the fight without the discomfort of developing good policies. They seem so sure that all they have to do is tear the other guy down and they'll win, so they don't have to be any good. Maybe, just maybe, showing that we are willing to embrace a third party will also make the Liberal and Conservative parties the forces for ideas they once were! too.

I'm under no illusions that my own record was perfect. On some things, the numbers show I had some good ideas. I made mistakes, too, sometimes getting so caught up in developing ideas that I didn't collaborate with others enough. I have, as they say, baggage good and bad. Yet those bruises all represent chances to learn, improve and get better every day.  I grew up here, and people here know me best. I wasn't perfect at 33, and I won't be at 43, but i learn a little from every experience and every person.  

I hope people know that I've never made the arrogant mistake of playing it safe, putting my political survival ahead of getting the job done. I intend to run a campaign based upon discussing ideas, debating differences but not attacking personalities, and maybe I can earn your trust door by door by door. 

I've never stopped believing that Fredericton can be the best place to live. Sometimes, when money runs out and easy solutions are unavailable, we unleash our greatest capacity to create. In the riding that contains our downtown and campus, I'm running offering a chance to show, together, that we are one creative, diverse community with one hell of a future.


Saturday, December 14, 2013


One of the most indelible images of my time in Senegal was found on Ile Gorée, the UNESCO heritage site which captures the origins of the slave trade. 

In the midst of the beautiful, Oceanside island lies a rectangular cinder block building whose nondescript appearance as architectural proof of the banality of evil. For it was in this building where slave traders and their damnable local enablers held the men and women who had been kidnapped to be sold into slavery. As you walk past the shackles on the wall you will walk down a narrow corridor which opens right into the ocean. It was at this door where slave ships docked and their human cargo was loaded. The terrifying part of that passage, even to those visiting today in complete safety, would be the last thing the captives would have seen --the ocean carrying on infinitely, yielding no destination, no landmark, no certainty but a voyage into the unimaginable. 

To the credit of the people of Charleston, South Carolina, the end of that voyage can also be seen today. There are good people who preserve the darkest parts of history so that we can be reminded today of how fragile democracy and human rights can be, and so perpetrators must live with the mark of history's judgement upon them.  

Yet the most powerful part of this chapter was not the cobblestone streets or preserved slave markets which reflect the sad stories. It was the hopeful story that is told inside a plain office in a former bank on Charleston's King Street. It is a story that is still unfolding today. It is the story of the Gullah Geechee Nation, shared with us by one of its most determined authors.  

The Gullah Geechee Nation runs up and down the coast of four southern states, from South Carolina to the northern part of Florida. It links the communities where the diaspora of African-Americans taken from West Africa took root after emancipation, recognizing the unique culture and traditions that grew among these families.

Over time, this story went from a quiet existence, felt but unrecognized, to full recognition in an Act of Congress which recognized the Gullah Geechee nation and established a corporation with a board dedicated to curating the history and culture of its people.

Now, there are some economic benefits to this idea of creating a symbolic territory of shared history. The businesses up and down the corridor benefit from the context, as businesses offering traditional Gullah food and crafts can find tines who want to consciously immerse themselves in the culture. The linked signage allows for promotion of a unique drive and small communities which benefit from providing a reason for the cars to stop. (Let me tell you now that Miss Charlotte's Gullah Rice and Fried Chicken is worth a trip).

There are bureaucratic advantages as well.  The creation of a standing corporation provides a space where academics, businesses, artists and citizens can meet to share, tell and promote stories. Creating the space within the administrative world matters as well. When state highway departments began adding lanes they were able to work with the GGN to avoid ending the many traditional sweet grass basket sellers along the highway. And the GGN provides a portal for state governments to co-ordinate approaches. 

Beyond policy ramifications though, there was a simple eloquence to the determined people who had begun tracing their stories and wound up inspiring an Act of Congress. Testimony from Gullah descendants who began to understand their history beyond the tale of slavery but as the story of a culture able to survive, the words of people who understood their grandparents speech pattern as historical rather than deficient, these matter as well.

It would not be hard for a New Brunswick government to adopt enabling legislation to give groups a path to non-profit corporations who could promote areas of cultural and historical importance. Given our academic and cultural sectors, there is potential here (this could have been a direction for the Capital Commission has government cuts not ended the experiment). It would not be much harder to place the issue on the agenda of Atlantic premiers' meetings to co-ordinate approaches. Is there potential here for New Brunswick?  I'd love to hear others' thoughts.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Folks who read this blog over the next three weeks may notice a certain enthusiasm for things I'm observing in the United States that may seem uncharacteristic for me. The nerdy enthusiasm for policy in general, yes, that is undeniably me. But some have occasionally told me I can seem stubborn and naturally skeptical of ideas, and here I will be advancing new ideas to consider with the bubbly enthusiasm of an actor in one of those Cialis commercials. 

So, let me explain.

An exchange trip is a different type of experience. When I travelled as a minister, I had a number of goals to advance that required me to focus only on New Brunswick's immediate interests. If that meant making a speech which stuck to our perspectives at a roundtable, or if it meant quietly pouring shots of bai-Jo into a potted plant so a smart senior official in China couldn't toast me into submission, well, that was the job. 

Here, I have the gift of seeing something new for three weeks and considering it with no interest. I love to share the strengths of Canada, but I also love to hear what others are proud of, how they see the good in their country.  This is how we learn from each other. 

When the creators of Bugs Bunny were developing cartoons, they insisted on a Big Yes Session. That was just a time when no idea could be dismissed.  No one was allowed to say "no" or "for heaven's sake, Jim!"  You had to first think about how to make it work. 

Like Canada, the U.S. has challenges. As with us, their public service is full of decent but human people who struggle with the scope of some challenges. Yet, also like us, they have solved some problems with good will, hard work and creativity. So, on this trip, I want to see the good through their eyes and think first about how to make it work at home.

I'm trying to apply the Big Yes Session to the trip as well, so new experiences are getting embraced. My first afternoon here, a beer at a local sports bar led to chatting with folks next to me and soon, five of us from three different cities were enjoying Indian food on a rooftop patio (I also have an invite to Louisville, Kentucky). A Canadian pilgrimage to Adams-Morgan led to some brave Canucks entering a reggae club because the bouncer called out to us -- and we found a $5 all-you-can-drink bounty inside. (Yes, restraint was shown). Crystal City microbrews are great. 

Anyway, this leftie Canadian is looking for everything to say yes to in America. I haven't lost my talent for healthy skepticism. But maybe, somewhere amidst the monuments of the National Mall and the obvious, unspoiled emotion they evoke in our American neighbours, I've also been reminded that both our nations were founded upon a hearty dose of optimism as well.

Immigration -- The Math and Moral Courage

The Center For Immigration Law is a few blocks from the action on Capitol Hill, although it is calm even as their signature issue heats up.  The Center works for common sense immigration reform, and right now the legislative calendar is offering them their close-up. So folks there are busy trying to inject facts and reason into an intensely political issue. 

Where facts and logic take them is to the inescapable conclusion that more immigration is a good thing. And the facts are on their side. For companies seeking a place to locate, workplace skills are a site selector and immigrants are representing as much as 80% of the growth in some hard-to-find skills in the STEM sector. (Note that STEM refers to a grouping of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills and is a preoccupation American policymakers hold with considerable passion)

As well, immigrants are considerably more likely than average to start a business and to succeed to the point that they are job creators. Far from taking jobs from established citizens, immigrants tend to both create and attract more jobs for their new neighbours and countrymen. 

If you're thinking that more people and more jobs would sound pretty good at home in New Brunswick, you're right. Our population has declined for all but a handful of the last twenty years (Shawn Graham, so frequently maligned, was the most successful premier by the numbers).  Yet lacking large urban centers, existing support communities and autonomy over immigration policy doesn't always allow New Brunswick to work with the urgency our declining population demands. 

Trying to take some opportunity for learning away from each of our sessions, one set of numbers keeps nagging at me. If you listed the Top 100 American cities in population, and then listed the 100 cities with the fastest immigration growth, you would notice 29 cities that may contain the answer for New Brunswick. Twenty-nine cities are not among the biggest, but are punching above their weight when it comes to immigration. The folks at the Center, understandably busy with government relations, have noted this group but haven't yet done work to identify what these 29 overachievers have in common. Sure, some may have a unique industry that rains jobs down like manna from heaven, but others may just be enacting policies and attitudes that work. This would be a great job for a keen researcher at our policy centers in New Brunswick.

If we can figure that our, we should be demanding that Ottawa give us the power needed to try something different. Our shrinking numbers, down in the skills companies demand, the incomes our social safety net requires, the middle-class that makes communities click-- these numbers are an emergency that demands action. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for a policy of stapling a green card on to every university and college degree earned by foreign students. Frankly, we could do a lot worse. 

That brings me to the moral challenge for our political and business leaders. Too many people still cling to a simple, easy-to-understand, wrong belief that if we have unemployed people here, more immigration means more people "taking" scarce jobs. This is built upon a wrong assumption, the assumption that jobs are a static good unaffected by the arrival of people with skills and drive and entrepreneurial spirit. But it is a powerful belief. 

Something dangerous has entered our political bloodstream; the belief that it is a leader's lob to poll and discover popular misconceptions and repeat them back to us rather than challenge us. In this political theory, those who attempt to challenge conventional wisdom are "arrogant", those who accept existing beliefs are humble purveyors of a new approach. But the moment calls for leaders with a different humility -- the humility to take risks in the service of the greater good of ideas and evidence-driven policy. 

In the end, we learned that places which attract immigrants are places who want immigrants and make that a civic goal. And each one of us who love New Brunswick need to be willing apostles for the benefits of immigration, convincing our neighbours that greater opportunity awaits all our kids if we have the courage to think differently, globally and openly about opening our doors to those who want to join our communities. 

It was nice to meet people who are passionate about following the evidence and opening their shores up to others. I hope to bring the evidence and the passion home with me. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


 The debate on government's role in economic development is a hot one back home. We have a nagging feeling that all these grants to business aren't doing much, and when something clearly goes south like ATCON, Atlantic Yarns et al, we can even get pretty mad.  Yet the counter argument, asking if we are ready to accept that government does nothing but trust the market, always seems a bit too optimistic for a have-not province.

Well, today I met leaders at two economic development agencies that might help us find a third way on the topic. Directors at the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) took the time to give us in-depth briefings on what they do.

The MBNA focuses on marginalized groups who may struggle to be fully included in a market economy -- immigrants, African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and others are statutorily presumed to be marginalized and others can be added based upon objective criteria.  Newcomers used to thinking of the U.S. policy landscape as dominated by laissez-faire economists will be surprised to learn that there is bipartisan support for the notion that lack of connections to investors, mentors and capital holds some groups back. As long as the solution is to lower barriers to free market businesses and not redistributive social programs, there has been support for programs whichever party holds sway in D.C.

The MBNA does not give grants or loan guarantees to businesses that have minority ownership.  Rather, they work with potential and actual entrepreneurs to reduce the impact of lower social capital and mentorship by creating opportunities to access the competitive bidding process for government contracts, and leveraging those successes to increase the business's ties to larger private sector companies. 

The federal government here is very big on "set-asides" -- legal mandates to reserve a certain percentage of government work for small and medium enterprises, or SME's. These set-asides don't weight the scales in favour of some businesses over others the way anti-free traders suggest, but they limit some competitions to small or minority players. They then use these competitions to allow companies to register for ongoing assistance learning how to compete in this arena. 

One advantage of this over weighted criteria is that companies excluded by the criteria don't bid and lose to government-chosen competitors, but instead have an economic incentive to include eligible companies in their supply chain. A small minority-owned business may not be big enough to have a contract to build tanks, but it might make specialized parts that will then encourage a big company to make them part of their team. This also creates an incubator effect where companies begin to grow less dependent upon their government advisors and starts to benefit from connections with major industry players, which is pretty much the point.

These set-asides are combined with local Centers Of Excellence. These are local community institutions that commit to mentor and aid entrepreneurs in regions with specialized economic opportunities and growth industries. Post-secondary institutions and community agencies bid to get funding and must agree to deliver content and be measured on outcomes to keep their funding year-to-year. The more bottom-up process allows for local priorities to drive the establishment of these Centers in a way that gives more sway to local trends than a centralized plan of establishment might do. These Centres are the program delivery mechanism that identifies companies that will benefit most from help, evaluates proposals and trains entrepreneurs in contracting processes.

The SBA oversees set-asides across a variety of targeted areas -- minority-run businesses, economically-depressed zones, and under-capitalized entrepreneurs. In addition to ensuring compliance from all government departments in meeting the 23% set-aside target for contract competitions, they also oversee loan guarantees and small business advocacy within the political structure.

The neat thing here is that these agencies are targeting businesses in a different way than we do in New Brunswick.  Our Strategic Assistance Fund often aids existing businesses that are failing or mobile companies that demand incentives to choose New Brunswick.  Recognizing that small business creates a disproportionate number of new jobs and is the least likely business to leave its home region, the US programs actually target businesses at the point where accelerator funds have the greatest impact on new jobs -- companies still growing and at around $1million annual sales. These are called "Gazelles", and it may be telling that I never heard that word used in economic aid decisions in all four years I spent in government.

Even the loan guarantees that exist through the SBA have a more bottom-up process. There is no political involvement in the decisions. (The agencies, in all things,  may make decisions and simply report to political masters on overall results but no executive authority is involved in particular decisions to aid particular companies).   Lending institutions must bid to partner with government and put some money up themselves to help the growing business, so that the government guarantee never fully replaces the judgement of the lender as it did in some of New Brunswick's debacles.

In short, government aid to companies in these federal programmes is marked by these differences:

It is completely depoliticized at the granting level.
It targets only growing, never failing, companies.
There is an embedded advisory role for government in helping companies.
The use of set-asides in tendering preserves unweighted competitions but limits eligibility.
There is a finite time period in a company's life for help.
There is an advocacy, or ombudsman-like, role for agencies defending small business interests within the political process.

Could some of these ideas offer New Brunswick a third way between the failed process of political bailouts and a complete reliance on the vagaries of markets and Upper Canadian bankers?  I will confess that some of these lessons seem worthy of debate among our policymakers, business leaders and academics.


For the next three weeks, the blog is going to be more active and quite a bit different.  In case you missed my news, I've had the honour of being selected to join the International Visiting Leaders programme through the U.S.State Department. The IVLP is designed to let emerging foreign leaders visit a variety of regions in the U.S. and exchange ideas and perspectives with American policy leaders. Among the alumni of the programme you'll find Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Hamid Karzai, as well as many less famous folks who still went home with some new ideas and made their communities a bit better. I'll settle for making it into that second group.

My group is unusual in the IVLP -- instead of a mix of nations, we are five Canadians from a variety of backgrounds and regions in our own home and native land. We have a central theme as well, with our trip looking specifically at economic development and creation of entrepreneurial cultures in struggling economic zones. We start in Washington to learn about the policy instruments, but then head to cities around the U.S. to see how people actually make those policies real through community agencies and local programmes.  We will soon be heading to, in order, Charleston, Albuquerque, Seattle and Detroit. 

You'll meet my four travelling companions as we get to know each other, but I can already give you one spoiler alert.   They are all impressive people, with a creative entrepreneurial bent. They are also clearly fun to travel with, and we've already decided that we are going to enjoy our three weeks together.

After a tour of Washington's landmarks and a briefing on comparative federalism, the policy part of our tour began today with visits to some key government departments. (the federalism part can be summed up quickly once one accepts that Canadians' greatest policy fear is that government will fail to act when needed, and Americans' greatest fear is that government will act when it isn't needed at all.)

Through the next three weeks, I'm going to share some thoughts on how some lessons, axioms, and anecdotes might apply to tackling our challenges in New Brunswick. And if three weeks of travel inevitably lends to some funny or amazing moments, I will share that, too.  After all, I already stopped a few times and wished more New Brunswickers could be here for this. Maybe in some ways you can. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


One time, when my pride had led me into a tough political situation, my friend Andy Scott came to see me.  "You're ready to hear this now", he began, "so I'm going to give you some advice."

"You've had the option of running people over in a debate. I never had that option, so I learned to convince them. Now, you've reached a job where you're going to have to learn that, too."

It was brilliant advice. I probably could have used it years before, but Andy knew when I was ready to hear it.  It was one more reason I, like many in Fredericton, considered Andy Scott my mentor. I make no claim I learned well, but he was one hell of a teacher.

Andy kept convincing people, his whole life. If you disagreed with him, if you attacked him, he just kept talking and listening and engaging with you until he squeezed the opposition right out of you.  When I was in student politics, Andy was a legend. If we organized a demonstration when the Prime Minister visited, Andy made sure leaders got to meet him and tell him what we were worried about. If we proposed ideas, Andy made sure we got to present them.  We all were recipients of the 11pm call from Ottawa where Andy made sure we knew that what we were saying got heard.

Over the years, you could see that this wasn't an isolated case. You saw the folks who handed out leaflets attacking Andy in one election campaigning for him the next. I remember a lot of Bernard Lord cabinet ministers telling me they hoped Andy would be re-elected because they knew he would work with them. Few dared to have town hall meetings on the emotional issues like gun control and same sex marriage, but Andy's ended with both sides applauding, if not agreeing.

You might think this would make those late night policy phone calls seem less special, but Andy in his every word and deed made it clear that he saw any citizen willing to engage as special --even if they never voted for him.  As a result, many eventually did. 

Sometimes, politicians who make everyone feel listened to succeed because their views are elastic and vague, but that isn't the case here. Even insider accounts of the Chrétien government's early days cite Andy as an acknowledged leader of the MP's fighting to protect the social safety net. He engaged everyone, but he supported marriage equality when it wasn't clearly politically safe to do so, and faced physical threats for his stand. His advocacy for people with disabilities, expressed through a committee report notable for its passion and clarity, is still nationally known.  He was a leading voice in achieving the Kelowna Accord.

Andy's political success was never built on negative attacks or flashy appeals, but on the facts that he spent the time needed to learn the issues and stayed up a little later educating others. That these things stand out might tell us something worrisome about the state of politics, but it tells us more that was good about Andy Scott.

Friends from away were amazed that Andy's margin of victory grew after the unfortunate incident with Dick Proctor, but no one here was. Andy often treated citizens like they deserved to hear what was really going on in Ottawa, and even if he went over the line with the best of intentions, the snark and nastiness that followed told us more about the system than it did about the honest, forthright, humble guy from Barker's Point we had sent into that morass on our behalf.

That Andy kept going after that incident and thrived is a testament to the man. It also illuminates what so many people found loveable about Andy. In a cynical age, he never lost faith that government could be a force for good, that hard work and good intentions would win out and that good ideas would eventually get heard. Perhaps, when the social media spats and scandals of the day dominate our public debate, we could all keep a little of the same faith in the power of citizens. 

I think Andy would really like that. And if there's a way to call you at 11:00pm where he is, you can bet the house that he'll find it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


New Brunswick's Legislature has seen a bevy of Question Periods dedicated to breaches of privacy law in recent years. As Bart Simpson once said, I can't help but feel partly responsible.

As Opposition House Leader some years ago, I was the lead interrogator when Minister Brenda Fowlie resigned over breaking privacy laws. Just so everyone remembers what was at stake in that case, I'm going to recap the facts here.

Liberal MLA Stuart Jamieson asked legitimate questions about a company getting permits despite not following local zoning laws, which Minister Fowlie oversaw as Local Government Minister. The next day, when he returned to the topic, she had clearly reviewed a new file --Jamieson's own. She released private information on his own home zoning applications which she thought might embarrass Jamieson, both in the House and in interviews after with media.

The Fowlie case was one of the more serious breaches of privacy law. The Minister was personally responsible for the breach, the information released was not trivial, and the intention was deliberate and malicious. Nor was there any mitigation, as she denied the actions were wrong and only resigned after an inquiry found that she was wrong. That is why, carefully and soberly, we insisted she resign.

A few weeks later, Social Development Minister Tony Huntjens blurted out the name of a patient in care during an interview. His intentions were entirely pure, but he had personally made the mistake and the information was again not trivial. He never faced a Question Period. He resigned immediately and was rightly praised for his honour and accountability.

There are good reasons for privacy breaches to require resignations. Ministers have access to a lot of sensitive information, and any of us given that power need an ongoing reminder of how great the responsibility must be. However, if we start demanding resignations over trivial or accidental breaches, soon we risk having people tune out when really serious breaches occur.

Oppositions seeking Question Period fodder need to remember this. The Tories, once in opposition, seemed to want to avenge their wounds on the issue of privacy law. First, when a bureaucrat lost data files at the Department of Health, they spent three days of Legislative time demanding the resignation of Health Minister Mike Murphy. The demand didn't pass the smell test. Murphy had no personal connection to the breach. He never would have even known the data file's whereabouts or existence. By the time Donald Savoie called the Tory charges "silly", the matter was closed.

The concept of ministerial accountability is important. In a policy sense, ministers are the final voice for their departments and must bear the burdens of office when policies, procedures and regulations (or the lack thereof) go awry. On matters of execution, however, the principle has evolved. There was a time where every mistake was deemed to be a minister's mistake. There was also a time when the whole bureaucracy fit inside the Government Members' Building at the Legislature. In today's large bureaucracies, this hardly makes sense. It strikes the public as foolish to insist that a minister must be lost if, say, one employee of thousands makes a mistake. Unless the mistake flows from the act or omission of the minister, it is now sufficient to competently take responsibility for addressing the matter and minimizing the chance of a second mistake.

Which brings us to Education Minister Jody Carr. Carr faces Liberal demands for his resignation because a member of his staff disclosed the test mark of a student. With all due respect to my former colleagues, to demand Carr's resignation over this cheapens the principle of privacy law and detracts from the ability of future legislators to punish truly serious and malicious breaches.

Jody Carr never had control of the information, had no means by which he could have known of or prevented the breach, and certainly has no malicious or political goal in the release. After a brief hyperpartisan stumble, he has acted appropriately in turning the matter over to an independent Commissioner so that the facts and his response can be scrutinized.

The Education Minister is no doubt paying the price for his own active role in prosecuting Bernard Leblanc, who resigned as Justice Minister when his own email account was used by a staffer to send communications that contained personal information about a third party.

Even in that case, Leblanc's decision to allow the staffer access to his account did create a vital link to the minister that doesn't exist in Carr's case. That said, Leblanc's voluntary resignation may not have been strictly necessary had he dug in. That he chose to accept a brief time out from cabinet speaks to the honour and dignity with which he served.

It is perhaps understandable that Liberals want Carr to answer for (in their eyes) overreaching sanctimony in opposition. But that is still unwise, for they are now promoting a standard of ministerial resignations that they surely should not apply if in government. Even if they think Carr overreached in Opposition, it follows that he must also be a cautionary tale for the perils of repeating the error.

Besides that, a huge reason for the loss of public trust in politicians is that MLAs get carried away in opposition and make demands of others they don't live up to in government. There are many legitimate issues in the Education portfolio -- underfunding, the lack of an Education plan, and micromanagement spring to mind --that with a little work, Liberal MLAs could marshall to keep the Minister hopping. One of those ways should not be demanding a resignation over this matter, as it cheapens the important vigilance of privacy law for the sake of a cheap headline.

Friday, April 12, 2013


As both federal opposition parties head toward convention weekends, pundits are rightly discussing the significant bounce that Justin Trudeau's looming victory has given the Liberal Party of Canada. By any measure, his impact has been impressive. The Liberals, previously in third place and surrounded by carrion eaters in the eyes of some observers, have rebounded to take the lead in most credible surveys.

This blog post will be a bit different than many of the ones on this site. Exercising some measure of discipline, I will offer no comments on whether Trudeau's support is a good or bad thing. Instead, I am going to indulge my inner academic geek and try to offer a statistical look at the durability of leadership bounces. I've always been taken by Paul Wells' advice on assessing conventional wisdom -- that when everyone in Ottawa knows something it is usually wrong. Something I'm going to start doing in this space is taking some of these easily-accepted truisms and seeing if they hold up under the numbers. I don't fancy myself a Nate Silver, of course, but just as I can enjoy playing basketball and not be Kevin Garnett, this may prove fun for my fellow geeks.

What I've done is take a look at the polling bounce for leaders chosen after Pierre Trudeau beat Joe Clark in 1980. Happily, Environics has a polling archive housed at Queen's University that allowed me to take the polls immediately preceding and following a new leader's convention win.

Here, in descending order, are the new leader bounces:

John Turner, Liberal (1984) +7.7%
Stéphane Dion, Liberal (2006) +6.7%
Michael Ignatieff, Liberal (2008*) +6.4%
Stockwell Day, Canadian Alliance (2000) +4.7%
Paul Martin, Liberal (2003) +2.8%
Audrey McLaughlin, NDP (1989) +2.4%
Kim Campbell, Progressive Conservative (1993) +2.1%
Brian Mulroney, Progressive Conservative (1983) +2.1%
Alexa McDonough, NDP (1995) 0%
Stephen Harper, Conservative (2004) -0.4%
Jack Layton, NDP (2003) -1.0%
Peter McKay, Progressive Conservative (2003) -1.9%
Jean Chrétien, Liberal (1990) -1.9%

First, a few notes on the data. The bounces here likely seem small. Because Environics provided the best archive where I could actually compare the same polling firm and method, I've accepted some of their constraints. One of them is that these are numbers without the undecided and leaning factored in. The reason polls generally add up to 100% is because the top line numbers involve some polling science of reallocating those who don't answer. Environics numbers in this archive are their raw percentages of who actually gave a party preference, so the numbers are smaller. These bounces likely got reported as larger ones on the top lines.

As well, using a consistent "closest to the date" rule may understate some of the bounces. If I used a less controlled method of searching for the largest reported polling bounce, both Campbell and Martin would do better, as would Day to some degree. Both Campbell and Martin had some polls show a Trudeauesque bounce of 15 points or more. As well, because they were both inevitable and ubiquitous front runners for a while, their bounce built even bigger over a few polls. However, this would be a less consistent comparison, and moving those two leaders up wouldn't change what you likely saw as most notable about these numbers. But if you want to anecdotally recall Campbell and Martin as even more successful than this, go ahead.

Finally, a couple of technical points. I had a choice for Ignatieff, whether to use the date Bob Rae and Dominic Leblanc withdrew and he became interim leader, or the date where a convention ratified this choice. I chose the former, since that was when he moved into the Opposition Leader's chair and was publicly seen as starting his leadership. Also, I could not fix a date for Jean Charest's more organic ascension to head of the shell-shocked, two-person PC rump (he likely was seen as leader by the public the next day), and thus excluded him.

So, what do we notice here?

Obviously, the most striking thing is that the size of the convention bump provides us with a list where the most successful leaders seem clustered at the bottom, and some of the great cautionary tales of politics seem to be at the top. Chrétien, Mulroney and Harper are the only guys who have kept winning, and Layton had a historic breakthrough. Even McDonough saw a modest improvement in NDP fortunes, and we never got to evaluate McKay. The guys at the top imploded.

I recall that at the New Brunswick Liberal convention one disappointed onlooker, given the consolation that people wanted a new, untainted face, replied "yes, because heaven knows the Liberal Party has never done well with an older, experienced guy who was in the cabinet of an unpopular government". And, indeed, Jean Chrétien was all those things and paid for it in his post-convention bounce. Yet his admonition to the "Nervous Nellies" in the party fretting about the lack of instant gratification paid off quite nicely with three straight majorities. It does seem clear that the standing of a leader right after the convention is a poor predictor of electoral success.

I would caution against the logical trap of trying to explain that certain bounces can, in hindsight, be "explained". Yes, Dion had a charming underdog win driving him. Yes, Chrétien had the Meech Lake debate raging when he won and took a beating for his past. Yes, Harper suffered from the post-convention loss of more progressive Stronach supporters. And yes, Martin took the sponsorship fallout right in the proverbial shorts. But this exactly the point -- the standing both at the convention and on Election Day are influenced by events and how the candidate handled them. The cold numbers simply tell us how the early predictive verdict panned out.

What you choose to make of this is an open debate. There are two plausible explanations that I can suggest, and I cannot prove or disprove either by the numbers.

The first suggestion is that electoral bounces are simply unrelated to eventual success. In this explanation, the real predictors of electoral success are more fundamental predictors -- a party's brand popularity, organization, fundraising and policy clarity/appeal all matter. An appealing face probably does help, but if they don't have the fundamentals then they are eventually gong to be weighed down. This explanation would ask you to accept that the larger bumps for unsuccessful leaders are simply because their party's weak fundamentals gave them more room to improve (Campbell and Turner followed very unpopular incumbents, Day took over a new party, etc).

The second plausible explanation would be the more intriguing one. If convention bounces are actually a negative predictor of electoral success, it would suggest that party electors make choices on the wrong factors. In this scenario, you would believe that the things that make leadership candidates appealing in the short-term are actually the wrong criteria.

Advocates of this conclusion might cite that the factors that produce leadership enthusiasm often involve voters and skills that are least helpful to winning elections. The qualities a leader needs to create a bounce must be ones that cause at least a short-term change in how the party is seen. By definition, this will favour "new" faces who will be least associated with the party brand, have the fewest unpopular decisions on their record, and are thus the most "different". This may mean that skills the Chretiens and Harpers and Layton's acquired along with the baggage of unpopular decisions and election losses go unnoticed because they are not different enough to quickly create a change in voters' views of the party. Yet these very skills -- a grasp of policy, an intuitive sense of how to avoid trouble, a knowledge of the election terrain -- serve them well in the long run.

It may also be that polling booms exist because new faces move the most volatile voters. When Colin Powell was flirting with a 1996 presidential run and had a 70% approval rating, one Clinton strategist remarked "I can take him down 20 points in one day. Ask him whether he's pro-choice or pro-life". The point is well-taken. It may be that new faces hold their appeal because they are least like a politician, and this appeal to swing voters moves party elites to chase this appeal. Yet once elected, a new "not-a-politician" will immediately begin doing things that look, well, like a politician. The Harpers and Chretiens may not attract these more volatile voters immediately, but the support they have is more durable because it has been tested by actual decisions and past mistakes. And the swing voters will simply choose the guy who campaigns best when it counts. In this telling, parties were lucky that a cabinet minister in a rejected government, a failed Toronto mayoral candidate, and an uncharismatic former MP had the organization to win as unlovable favourites, because otherwise they may have made the mistake they made chasing fool's gold in more open races.

Now, lest I be accused here of some wish fulfillment, let me make something clear. The numbers don't lie, but they also don't predict with absolute certainty. Just because something hasn't happened before doesn't mean it won't. Teams down three-games-to-zip in the playoffs don't win, unless you're the 2004 Red Sox. Insurgent presidential candidates don't beat establishment favourites, unless you're 2008 Barack Obama. And just because exciting new faces haven't proven to be as solid a bet as veterans grizzled by controversy and defeat doesn't mean they'll never win. It may be that someone out there combines the sizzle of Stock Day with the substance needed to win. And as anyone who ever watched my wife win the weekly football pool by choosing uniform colours knows (yep, she did), sometimes bad bets pay off.

In fact, if I'd had polling data from 1968, I'd have found a leader who had style and who turned out to make a pretty big impact on the country. A fellow called Trudeau. I could compare his readiness to the new guy's, but I'd break my promise at the top of the post to avoid opinion.

Lets just say that maybe, this time, everyone knows something. They just don't know it for the reasons they think they know it.

Monday, March 25, 2013


The closure of 10 Early Intervention Centers in New Brunswick is one of those stories that suggests a huge risk to children, and a lack of interest from the media and opposition MLA's in performing some basic due diligence. If you believe, like many New Brunswickers, that there in urgency in helping children with special learning needs, then we owe it to these vulnerable kids to dig a little deeper than we have.

Here's the background, quickly. Early Intervention Centers provide home-based support to children and their parents to make sure that potential developmental needs are met. It is a cruel statistical fact that children with developmental challenges often (though by no means always) live in homes where parents may lack the background, financial resources, and work-free time needed to identify problems and act upon them.

The 17 Intervention Centers solve that problem. The now-closing Fredericton Center would be typical. It grew out of community support and government began funding its success. It has leaders and workers trained in spotting a range of problems, from Shaken Baby Syndrome, FAS, Kindergarten Readiness Skills and developmental delays. They are trained to provide parents with play-based activities to help.

The staff of these Centers have specialized training that is not easily replaced. They also have something else that is very valuable. They have built up a range of community networks and contacts which allow them to get families quickly and easily into the services their child needs. They work with daycares, health professionals, literacy agencies, NGOs, and they have directors and managers who have built these personal networks. This "community capital" is precious and cannot be easily replicated by an outside agency, at least not quickly.

Fredericton, in particular, has a history that can't be easily reproduced. It was the FIRST early intervention program in New Brunswick, dating back to 1978, and its management and board have leaders who were genuine trail blazers. Fully 75% of its clients are in the Fredericton urban area.

The idea that this Center, along with ten others, should be closed in favour of a centre an hour away in Woodstock, is a decision that should be carefully questioned. When you add in three facts --that the decision benefits the Premier's riding, that the winning Center is the one best known to Minister Carr's chief advisor on these issues, and that the whole transition is happening in five (!) weeks-- the decision should set off a few alarm bells.

Parents and educators immediately began asking the right questions. It must be said that so far, the usual watchdogs have been pussycats. Newspapers moved it way down the coverage list. The Official Opposition said nothing. CBC Radio billed Minister Carr's appearance to answer questions as allowing him to "clear up parents' confusion" about the change. I heard the interview, and the parents are not confused-- the minister has not provided clarity.

Given that there are some very vulnerable families counting on us, and failure will cost us a lot of money and suffering in the future, we all have a duty as citizens to ask some tough questions. In fairness to my friends in the media, this is a specialized area requiring some background.

We haven't all had the chance to be minister of both education and social services, so I am offering some questions here that have not been asked of Minister Carr in most interviews, nor have I heard him say that he is asking his staff these questions. I hope this helps community and media leaders put the Department through proper due diligence on this file.

1. What exactly were the criteria used in evaluating which of the 17 Intervention Centers would live or die, and why was each factor chosen?

2. On which of these factors was the winning Center judged superior to the Centers you are killing off, and what measurable evidence backs this up? Have these results been made available to the Centers being closed?

3. Minister, you cited the $38Million in new early childhood money as evidence that these Centers would have "enhanced" services. Yet in the announcement, no new money for intervention services was included in this. (Look it up, there's $16.7M for new daycare spaces, $10.6M for staff wages and training, $3M for autism spectrum services, $4.4M in daycare subsidies to needy families, $3.5M for staff -of which $2.25M is to hire only 7 senior managers-, and a quarter million for an ad campaign to promote your changes.) Where is the money that matches your claim of enhanced services?

4. Given that you are spending $2.25M on adding 7 senior management positions at the district level, is this the most efficient use of funds for services? Since this is billed as new money, what happened to the 14 early childhood positions created at the district level in 2007?

5. You have said that the mandate of these intervention programs will now expand from birth to age 8 (up from age 5). Given that this is roughly a 60% increase in caseload, how will resources be added to ensure that this does not increase the per worker caseload and family wait time?

6. What was the size of the caseload in the now-closing urban Centers, and what will be the costs of staff travel for home-based care? (If the new placement model is mitigating that travel cost, by all means cite and explain that)

7. What was the promised decision date on the survival/termination of Centers, and what was the actual date the decision was communicated to the leadership of the Centers?

8. All families affected by the closure must sign a consent letter to transfer their child's file to the new agency. Will these letters all be signed by March 31st, and will families signing these letters have received clear information on how their child will receive services?

9. What transition planning has taken place in the communities whose Centers have been terminated? Will the new directors have met with each community partner of the closed Center by March 31 to develop protocols for co-operation?

10. As you will have effectively fired trained staff and dismissed experienced volunteers by March 31st, will exit interviews and employment offers have been completed by March 31 before this knowledge is lost to the system?

In one week ten Centers with their own history, successes, relationships and staff will have been closed, and we do not know on what basis. In one week hundreds of vulnerable children will lose their existing support network, and no one is asking what comes next. Knowing the inside of that department, and its current resources and workload, I do not believe it likely on the timeline announced that children will be well-served. I have been proven wrong before, but we need to give attention to these questions so that the politicians and administrators know that we, as a society, are watching when vulnerable children are affected. I encourage anyone who reads this to use whatever platform they have to ask these questions and others.

Friday, March 1, 2013


"Dude, what the hell?"

Actually, a lot of folks have been very supportive and hopeful about my decision to join the NDP. But now that the swirl of interviews is over, I wanted to explain my decision in something longer than a tweet or sound bite. Basically, it's all about ideas. I know it isn't the safe choice, or the politically easy one. But for me, it is the right one.

So, by now you likely know that I've accepted an offer to work with Dominic Cardy and the NDP on an exciting new policy initiative. It's called "Our Province NB", and this will be a substantive approach to developing a platform with citizens from a variety of backgrounds. We seek out ideas from committed, thoughtful New Brunswickers on a variety of important questions. These challenge papers will come from thoughtful people regardless of their partisan background. Once on line, anyone who registers for the process -- whether they join the party or not --can comment, propose changes, and post their own response papers. The party's leadership must directly engage people in discussions. Later, votes on certain policy choices will happen in the open with full transparency, making sure the leader must account for his choices in light of a very open debate and decision-making process.

The initial topics are ones that are urgent, and that the two traditional parties seem to want to ignore. They include finding solutions to some challenges that must be answered in the next few years, such as:

How do we attract new creative economy jobs,people and investment in the sectors that are growing without putting public funds at risk?
How do we make sure that all our citizens can participate in the economy, tackling stubborn problems like poverty and illiteracy within the budget constraints we have?
How do we deal with an aging population, where senior care will require significant new spending, without shortchanging the programmes that keep younger families here and support their opportunities?
How do we make sure that our education system prepares people for the new economy while promoting 21st century skills such as problem solving, creative thinking, collaboration and global awareness?
How do we reform our government and its institutions to restore faith in our democracy, and faith in New Brunswick as a fair and clean place to do business?

The process won't shy away from proposing ideas, or in welcoming constructive debate. It recognizes that the next election will require clear plans and bold ideas from those who seek to lead, and that discussions should happen now so that voters can make an informed choice.

Lately, watching the Legislature has reminded me of that old joke about the two hunters who surprise a bear. When one starts to run, his friend warns him that he can't outrun a bear -- to which the runner replies that he doesn't have to outrun the bear, he just has to outrun the other guy.

If we don't attract new industry, reach citizens falling out of the economy, improve our schools and reform our democracy, New Brunswick will struggle to keep up. Lately, the two traditional parties have spent a lot of time slamming each other but little time spelling out real clear policy choices. It seems like they just want to outrun the other guy so they can win power, instead of describe what they would do about the bears that threaten our economy and our future. I want to be a part of a party that earns trust through ideas, not by just shutting up and hoping the other guy blows himself up.

I was impressed by the fact that Dominic Cardy wanted people who haven't always been his supporters to get involved and debate ideas with him. A leader who welcomes critics is a leader who won't be co-opted by a few close backroom advisors if he becomes Premier, and Dominic fits that description.

Now, many of you know that I've had a ten year affiliation with the Liberal Party. And, while my choice is more about feeling positive about this new process, I do owe you an explanation about why I couldn't find that same optimism about the place where I was.

There are lots of good people in the Liberal Party. I've long outgrown the knee jerk partisanship that suggests that one party has all the good ideas, or that any party is going to be right all the time. That kind of debate bores me, frankly, and it isn't helpful.

I have struggled since the last half of the previous government's mandate to feel comfortable where I was. I took my mandate seriously and worked within the government to advance the ideas I felt good about, like education reform, early childhood education and poverty reduction. I respected my cabinet oath to work from within, and through our party's renewal process I tried to be clear about the things that should change -- such as making real democratic reforms, rolling back costly tax cuts that didn't work, and depoliticizing economic development. I even backed a leadership candidate willing to support those ideas and add some good ones such as an environmental bill of rights. Some will say I should have given it more time, others will try to use the time I spent trying to make it work to question my sincerity now. There's no perfect time to declare an amicable split, but I do believe the Liberal Party has chosen what it wants to be and made it clear that it does not share the ideas I promoted. I should note that parties have every right to do that, as citizens have every right to decide if they fit with a party.

The Liberal Party has chosen a different route, one that entrenches the things that I thought needed to change. The new leader has made it clear that Liberals will defend the past tax cuts and continue to tell people that the deficit can be tamed by cutting alone. He has made it clear that he does not believe in structural changes to reduce the power of the leader and his advisors, but will keep the same model we had in the last government, where as long as the leader endures public meetings, he may make all the decisions. The Liberal Party will not be quick to support limits on patronage appointments or politicized economic development. Mr. Gallant says he opposes patronage, but he has managed to oppose every actual rule against it, preferring to get elected by saying "trust me to make better backroom choices". And the Liberal Leader stands by his stated opposition to things I believe in, like more financial support for making college affordable and an earned income tax credit to help the working poor. He mocks these as "making more promises", but for some of us, having things we want to accomplish is what makes politics more meaningful than a season of American Idol.

The fact that federally, the front runner for the Liberal leadership has also ran opposing the release of detailed policy options, while Tom Mulcair has sparked real debate on diversifying our economy and reforming our democracy is not lost on me. The Liberal Party is about to elect leaders at both levels who mock the very idea of proposing clear ideas, instead urging people to give them a blank cheque on policy because they are new and exciting people. If we were casting a Disney Channel pilot, I would agree. Because we are governing a country,I cannot. It is clear that we have suffered from Mr. Alward being elected without having to think clearly about what he believed in and what he wanted to do. The solution is not to elect another unprepared leader in anger, but to insist that the next election be fought on substance and ideas.

However, I remain hopeful that this can happen. I worked with Dominic Cardy on the anti-patronage bills and watched as the government yielded to good, solid ideas. I am excited by the fact that here is a party open to ideas and debate from those who don't support it blindly, instead of regarding criticism with suspicion. And I still believe there is room for people who want to enter public life for what they can do there, not what they will be there.

I am less concerned all the time with who gets elected, and more concerned with the urgency of good ideas. I hope that others will join a discussion that puts ideas above party, policy above ambition, and our future above all else. No party has all the answers, but at this critical moment, the leaders in public life best ready to offer an alternative to failed conservative policy and a government prepared to lead are Dominic Cardy and Tom Mulcair.

Thursday, January 31, 2013


The separatist Bloc Québécois is gasping for air, rendered irrelevant by the decision of Quebeckers in the 2011 election to stop abstaining and choose among the parties dedicated to actually governing Canada. As history will record, in 2011 that choice was the New Democratic Party.

Now the Bloc's tiny Parliamentary rump is trying to resuscitate old fights to remain relevant, and has decided to find one area where they are unique among the four parties in Quebec -- the repeal of the Clarity Act. This is not an academic question -- the Bloc remains second in most polls in Quebec, and if they can gain other 6 or 7 points in the polls, they will likely again have the most MPs in Quebec.

The Clarity Act, a gift of Stephane Dion, has the admirable goal of reminding Quebeckers of what the Supreme Court said in a landmark ruling -- that Canada gets a say in any terms of secession, and that the mandate to separate must be clear in both the question asked and the voters' reply. Neither the ruling or the Act say precisely what those must be, but there is general direction that the clearer the question, the lower the number needed. A vague question and a slim majority won't be good enough, in part because one cannot say for sure that the majority would have held once be terms were negotiated.

Since the Bloc wants to force other parties to vote on a full repeal of the Act and show that only the Bloc has that position, NDP MP Craig Scott has offered a bill with a clear challenge to the Bloc -- a simple majority will carry a referendum, IF you agree that the question will be "Should Quebec separate from Canada?"

Now comes the debate. Liberal Leader-to-be Justin Trudeau says that the 50%+1 threshold is unacceptably low. Speaking as someone who likes the Clarity Act a lot, I'm wondering if, in fact, Tom Mulcair has just shrewdly called the separatists' bluff.

Let's start with this -- Mulcair's provincial political career allows us to know exactly where he stands on these questions. He is a federalist, ran for the federalist party, campaigned against separation in referenda, and is appropriately loathed by separatists in Quebec. You won't find quotes from him wanting to build firewalls around his province, as Mr. Harper has, or stating that separatism could be an option if the wrong party governs, as Mr. Trudeau has. If you accept the federalism of Mssrs. Harper and Trudeau on balance (and you should), then Mr. Mulcair's greater constancy should also be granted.

Let's also assume that a federalist wants the Bloc to lose, and wants to deny Premier Marois the chance to see the "winning conditions" she wants for a referendum. That means sidestepping provocations sometimes. The Bloc and PQ want to goad Canadians into divisive fights, and polarize their electorate. Federalists who win, from Mulcair to Charest to Chrétien, get good at avoiding bun fights.

This is important -- when Quebeckers are asked in polls a straight "Do you want to separate from Canada?" question, they never say yes. Often support is below 40% on ha question, as it is today. That's why both PQ referenda have asked weasel questions about supporting mandates along the terms of motions etc, etc -- separatists will never fight a referendum with the question Mulcair has proposed.

I dislike politicians who pander to Quebec nationalists. I voted for Stephane Dion in part because of his tough intellectual treatment of the PQ premier of the day. But in Mulcair's motion, I don't see capitulation. I see a tough bit of bluff-calling from a guy who beats the separatists a lot.

Mulcair knows this bill will never become law - it's a private member's bill stuck way down the order paper. But if he's ever Prime Minister, he has strong grounds to refuse to entertain separatist weasel questions later. He's offered them a clear question. And they won't take it. End of discussion.

If the separatists asked a straight question, and 56% of Quebeckers said "yes", it's not really clear that the nation would be governable without something significant happening next. All 3 leaders know that. For all the tough talk, Justin Trudeau isn't explaining how, exactly, he would wish result away. Nor should any leader address that hypothetical -- the separatists won't ask that question, and they won't win if they do. By focussing on that Achilles Heel of the Bloc's cause, the Mulcair approach might be the best way to make sure we are all spared the uncertainty of them even trying.

I should make a last point, just so no one thinks I've fallen off the turnip truck. Yes, of course Mulcair's bill has a political purpose -- to deny the Bloc the clear vote on the Clarity Act they want, The better to keep beating them. Trudeau also has a political purpose in critiquing Mulcair -- stuck in 3rd behind a more centrist NDP, he needs a wedge to win back progressive voters. After all, if this was really about federalism and defence of the flag, Mr. Trudeau would have also asked the Bloc why they won't accept a clear question, but he hasn't critiqued the Bloc, just the federalist NDP.

So, Mr. Mulcair has made a political manoeveur to keep beating the Bloc and the PQ. Mr. Trudeau has made a political manoeveur to beat the NDP. We'll have to decide which one of those causes is more worth a touch of shrewd politics.