Monday, October 24, 2016

Higgs Wins -- What It Means, and Free Advice

Well, I called the plot twist, but got the ending wrong.  I may have predicted that there would be a surprise endorsement from a Central NB candidate for Monica Barley that would take her to a 3rd ballot win over Mel Norton. But the win, and congratulations, go to Blaine Higgs. 

When Cleveland Allaby and Margaret-Ann Blaney chose Bernard Lord over Norm Betts, they delivered nearly 70% of their delegates to a bilingual Dieppe lawyer with a fresh face. Jake Stewart and Brian MacDonald had, together, nearly 21% of the vote, and less than a fifth of it followed them to Barley, a bilingual Dieppe lawyer with a fresh face.  
"So, if Monica has 940 votes, and we have 1200 votes between us, after our endorsement she should have....860 votes? Are you sure that's right?"

I'd predicted that type of endorsement because in party contexts, it makes sense.  It is the perfect meeting of self-interest and party’s interest. Parties are broad coalitions, and they need leaders of their most divergent factions to join together. And the leader least able to speak to a given faction needs that faction’s leaders more than anyone. The establishment of the party needed Jake Stewart to embrace Monica Barley and bring their people together. And for Jake and Brian, it made sense – they might have more in common with Mike Allen, but for the same reason, Mike Allen doesn't need them as key lieutenants like Monica Barley does. 

This will be a column of threes, and let’s start with THREE REASONS THAT THIS TIME, THE PARTY ESTABLISHMENT COULDN’T PULL IT OFF – “it” being the shotgun wedding between Team Jake and Team Monica.

1. Parties should get used to grassroots rebellions.  From Trump to Corbyn, party members are less likely to follow traditional power-brokers.  Tory voters aren't immune from this global trend, and when Jake Stewart tried to turn his followers’ passion for issues to personal trust, he found out that voters don't follow so easily anymore.
2. The language divide is broader. This would be the most worrisome Tory trend. In 1997, the PC electorate was reflective of the language demographics of New Brunswick (after all, the Valcourt election results were bad, but evenly bad across NB). If the party membership has become disproportionately Anglophone, members may feel less inclined to compromise for the electoral necessity of a leader who bridges the divide.
3. No trend, just timing.  Of course, it might have all been about this particular moment. After all, in 1997 Tories had been thumped three times by McKenna and might have been more willing to consider compromise to win than now, two years removed from power and believing that Gallant may fall on his own. And Lord was a cagey political savant, and handled those divides more easily than Barley seemed to in her impromptu comments on the language commissioner. 

Before the vote, I said Blaine Higgs was like the veggie tray at a Christmas party, in that everyone thought he was good for governing but feared his baggage and dislike of kowtowing to political expediency/necessity (depending on your view). His colleagues find him smart but inflexible, and he has the brand of a smart, straight shooter who also bears scars of Irving employment, CoR membership and pension reform anger. 

Some veggie tray, Lamrock. Don't doubt me again. 

Yet, he prevailed – and he prevailed over a field that had at least two plausible versions of the Lord/Graham/Gallant floor model, a new face with a certain ideological flexibility and limited baggage. So, I might bring forward THREE THINGS THAT HIGGS’ VICTORY MEANS.

1. The experience pendulum is swinging back. A series of short-lived governments led to parties following a bad beat with a new leader who couldn't be tied to the last gang. As governments fell more quickly, that meant parties were discarding past generations of ministers very quickly and the talent pool was increasingly shallow.  Higgs reverses that trend – he managed to sell the idea that he would still represent change if he were the boss, instead of a senior minister. There are ominous signs here for Gallant – the opposition didn't think “we need to find our own Gallant”. They thought – “we need to offer up something that doesn't look at all like Gallant”. We shall see if this reflects a good read on the electorate or just PC opprobrium for the Premier.
2. The bilingual test has been suspended, pending outcome. Ever since John Crosbie flamed out saying that he could deliver for francophones even if he couldn't talk to them, there has been a minimal standard of bilingualism required to be considered for the big job. It may be a sign of the times and tensions that a majority of Conservatives were willing to set that aside, buying Higgs’ argument that he could learn French faster than a bilingual neophyte could learn how to govern.
3. Parties don't just want to win once. The flip side of getting a leader without baggage to have an easier win seemed to exact a price – leaders who had no experience and promised to simply “consult and listen” arrived in office unprepared to make decisions.  When inevitably the world moved on without them, the economy and public services suffered and they grew quickly unpopular. Blaine Higgs may be a tougher sell for a first term, but if he wins, he will have a clearer mandate and be more ready to deliver. After a few weak governments, Tories seemed to be thinking of governing. 

Every new leader changes the political landscape, and so the amateur strategist in me has THREE PIECES OF POLITICAL ADVICE for the parties.  First, for our new Opposition Leader. 

1. Find something you care about beyond the bottom line. Higgs speaks passionately about the need for government to make smart business decisions, and there is an understandable hunger for managerial competence and common sense right now. But one shouldn't let arrogance set in – just as a minister of health can't take over a large company and know everything, a business leader can't assume everything is the same.  A government balance sheet isn't the end in itself – good fiscal management is what allows government to do its vital tasks like health and education well. I'd advise Blaine to not only be passionate about accounting, but to find one big public goal like literacy, senior care or poverty reduction where better management can also make a difference. Talk about this as well. If the Liberals are incompetent, but the only party that cares, that's an even fight. If they're less competent even when delivering liberal goals, then you'll have a big advantage. 
2. Build a team.  People trust you, Blaine. Some don't like you or agree with you, but they think you are smart and sincere. This will horrify you, but take a page from Jean Chr├ętien and Shawn Graham, two likeable, down-to-earth politicians who weren't afraid to be told their weaknesses and find lieutenants who reassured people. The presence of Paul Martin, John Manley and Marcel Masse next to Chr├ętien in 1993, and the presence of Mike Murphy, Roland Hache and, well, me, by Shawn Graham’s side in 2006 were not accidents. Some of Gallant’s advertising has echoes of a messiah complex – the leader handles all big announcements, the leader alone is in the ads. You have smart francophone lieutenants, some solid progressive conservatives, some emerging young people to draw from.  Trust me, when your opponent has Don Arsenault as his most visible minister, you can win the team battle.

The Liberal Team, both of them.

3. Define yourself quickly. You won't be able to use the dodge that Alward and Gallant used when their opponents began to implode. You can't just promise to consult on everything. It isn't you, and you won't be good at it because you know better. But the Liberals are already going through your public utterances, ready to describe what makes you different from them. These wedges won't be to your advantage. So you need to define yourself. You need a quick, simple answer on language questions, even if it's a shield and not a sword. If you are going to blast their deficit spending, you need to quickly find something – corporate welfare, local project pork – that you will do differently. You do have baggage, like anyone who served and tried to actually do something. They will want to frame every cut you'd make as something that people lose. Be ready to frame anything you'd cut as something that allows you to do something they haven't, such as balance the budget or fund education.

Now, three unsolicited tips for Liberals

1. Don't overplay the language card. This election may come down to a few swing ridings, likely suburban anglophone ridings. These voters will be afraid of an election that is wholly polarized on language lines, and they will notice your opponent’s unilingualism on their own. But if they see you venturing into demonizing him for it, or suggesting that no accomplishment is worthy of respect if the person doesn't know French, they may decide that you're polarizing things.  The early shots at Higgs were too strong for a government that already has a perception problem. Trust Swing voters to weigh all this. 
2. Curb your appetite for pork. You've got a federal cousin who wants to help. No doubt you've envisioned ribbon cuttings galore to help win a second term.  Just be aware that, if your MLAs give in to a natural politician’s wont to serve your own ridings first, there will be an unbecoming geographic imbalance there. Someone will be adding up roads paved, schools closed, businesses funded, cuts levied – and those already have some serious imbalances that may look like an attack you didn't intend.  You also have an opponent skilled at making an example of the first wasteful project you greenlight and using it to undercut your leader as too green and weak to say no to anyone. You may have to say yes to good projects in Tory ridings even if it ticks off a minister or two with a pet project. Remember that it may put the government at risk if you only say yes to your own. 
3. Get ready to choose. Somewhere, there's an old memo from me to the 2010 Liberal campaign team urging the party to embrace a left-right campaign. The thinking was, if two-thirds of people want your leader gone, issue divides are your friend. David Alward did this in 2010 – having won power as a guy who would consult and find consensus, he ran as a premier taking a tough-if-divisive stand on fracking. It was smart – fracking was a 50/50 issue, which was a better focus for the PCs than just asking voters to re-elect a premier with a 29% approval rating. 
2010 was "Say Maybe". 2014 was "Say Yes". 29% approval ratings do that. 

The Liberals have tried to indulge the dream of being beloved by all.  In a time when people generally don't like their governments, incumbents need to embrace the fact that elections will be 60-40 fights, and to choose to focus on issues where they have the 60%. If there's a weakness right now, it's that the Liberals haven't defined themselves enough to give people something they'll fear losing if they turf the  government – at a time when voters love to turf governments. 

Finally, it bears repeating that New Brunswick had a record-high third party vote last time, and polls still show that holding (if not growing) right now. I have pointers for third parties too, but you'll have to guess what those are by what lies ahead. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

PC Leadership -- What'll Happen and Why

The speeches are over at the PC leadership convention. It looks like a good, well-run convention. The numbers are excellent and they have drawn a field of strong candidates, each with a resume that warrants consideration. 

The focus today will be on the speeches. I love that part, and I've even written a few of those for various leadership candidates. But they matter least of all at a typical convention – just ask Prime Ministers John Crosbie, Jean Charest, and Ken Dryden, all of whom gave epic speeches at the end only to find that there weren't enough undecided delegates to matter. That said, in a seven-way race, a great speech can change someone’s second-ballot plans, and a few votes could decide which long shot breaks out of the pack and gets to a final ballot (like Stephane Dion beating Gerard Kennedy by two votes to get to third place and ride their pact to an upset win). 

The speeches also show the rest of us what Tories have been seeing, hearing, and thinking about. They will also be dissected in Liberal back rooms for clues about where the new leader is strong, where they are weak, and what internal pressures will make certain issues uncomfortable straddles for them. Today will make the ballot question between the two old-line parties a bit clearer. What will the Tories say the next election is about, and which leader best exemplifies that message. 

The elephant in the room is the language divide, of course.  Both 2010 and 2014 were change elections, but they were very different along language lines. Unlike the language-balanced caucuses that emerged from two close Lord-Graham elections, we moved to polarized caucuses. The NB Power fallout meant that the Liberals were competitive in francophone NB, but 2010 was a killing field in anglophone ridings that saw the proposed sale as not just a mistake, but a betrayal. The result was a PC government that didn't have a lot of voices to explain French NB to their leadership, and it showed – the 2014 election was two elections.  In English NB, Brian Gallant’s rookie mistakes led to an unpopular premier roaring back to win most seats. In French NB, it was never even close, and only Mado Dube’s status as a political Loki in Edmundston saved the Tories from a wipeout. 

Now the Liberals have a caucus that seems tone deaf to anglophones. Just by reversing the close losses in English seats the Tories can win a slim majority. This leads to an internal tension – PCs in the south see the challenge as scooping up anti-Liberal voters in a few ridings, and avoiding a split of anti-government votes with the “good government” appeal of Dominic Cardy’s NDP in the cities and the blunter language appeal of Kris Austin in the rural areas. They want a race focused on jobs with attacks on Liberal spending, debt and bailouts, and aren't anxious to water down that message to lose Tracadie by 3000 votes instead of 5000. Other delegates see ridings they held not long ago and want desperately to return them to the competitive ridings they were under Bernard Lord, fearing that accepting two consecutive blowouts will restore the old Liberal hegemony. 

That's the real split – those who fear the lesson of 1991 because the Anglo PC coalition shattered versus those who fear the lesson of 1991 is that you can't spot the Liberals an 19-1 lead and win. Behind this are a few issues, such as spending, corporate welfare, which economic sectors are priorities, etc – that also draw sharp regional differences. 

Few candidates have broken out of their local silos. That isn't necessarily fatal – the supporters of Mike Allen and Blaine Higgs aren't divided by any unsolveable breach as much as simple friendships and familiarity – but they do show there is no obvious saviour figure for them. Also, I've spoken with a lot of Tory friends who are also weighing not just who can win, but who can govern well. After all, we have seen a lot of one-term governments because the baggage-free face that can win has become the experience-free premier who can't win twice. Tories would like to win twice, this time 

There appear, from my many chats with Tories and my wild-ass guesses from experience, to be three possible winners. Monica Barley and Mel Norton seem to have the most support beyond their natural constituency.  The third, unknowable choice, is whichever guy emerges from the Higgs-Allen-MacDonald-Stewart knife fight/alchemy contest to assemble that central NB vote. If it grows enough to get a final ballot showdown with Barley, there is a path. 

There was a lot of similarity in the speeches. They all believe in hard work, team work, public service, and presumably good hygiene and keeping your desk tidy. But there were moments in the cliches that speak to the deeper choice. Having seen the speeches, here's how the pitches go.

Jean Dube is a thoughtful, experienced politician. He entered late and seems to lack the resources to break out. He is running to give the party a northern voice, which is a public service we should all thank him for. He has done well enough to give himself an ongoing presence in that role, if he wants it. That is a win for him.

Mike Allen is attempting something difficult – to become a leader after being part of an unpopular, defeated government. His weapons are deep roots in the party, a highly likeable personality, and a record of occasional dissent from Harper that would be modest in many governments but heroic in that government. His leadership would be a personality contrast with Gallant – a likeable, human face on traditional NB government instead of the packaged, distant Gallant. He would focus on Gallant’s record. Gallant might mention Harper now and then. There would be few surprises. 

Jake Stewart has added a lot to the race. Because he wasn't a front-runner, he has been willing to speak to policy and values beyond the cliches.  No one’s supporters seem more passionate about their choice than Jake’s, and I suspect he could deliver more of his supporters to someone else if that moment came. His “OneNB” pitch, with echoes of Dief, speaks at a frequency many traditional Tories love to hear. He can excite a base. His speech needed to show he can also build a winning coalition.  He's grown impressively as a speaker, but that is the question that was less clear. If he wins, there is an opportunity book of inflammatory quotes you will likely hear in Liberal ads a lot before he gets time to introduce himself. 

Brian MacDonald showed why he is the most polished political performer of the pack, and the stagecraft of his introductions and Lord-throwback jacket removal show he has watched the game well, to his advantage. He's sneaky-good on policy, and there were some moments of insight in his speech. In an era where people distrust government, he may simply repeat some of Gallant’s strengths and weaknesses – a bit too smooth, a bit inscrutable.  But if Tories are simply looking for someone who can stay as smooth as Gallant and scoop up some southern seats, he made a strong pitch. My Liberal  friends tell me the government takes him seriously, but they have a deep oppo folder on him.  His fight with Gallant would likely involve two smooth pols trying to shatter the other’s image in what could become negative, quickly. 

Blaine Higgs is like the veggie tray at the office Christmas party. Everyone knows they should like it. People are proud of the fact it's there, because it shows they considered good choices. But somehow, the meatballs and sweets, with their short-term rush, go first. There's often this kind of candidate in New Brunswick. Bernard Richard came third in a hall of delegates all whispering that he probably deserved it. Every crowded field has a Higgs, a guy everyone says is smart and honest and would be fine but….he doesn't really get politics. Higgs speech showed a hidden strength -- he's a great orator when he speaks about what he believes. The downside is that he's a lousy orator when he has to play politics. That makes most normal people like him a lot, and many local fixers convinced he can't win. He also makes enemies, in that unfair way politics makes honest people polarizing – because he sincerely believed in pension reform, he defended it passionately enough that opponents remember him more than the many career pols who just mumbled party talking points. This is called “baggage”. For all that, there has been a late surge towards him, and if he can assemble second ballot votes and squeeze Norton for the final ballot, he has a path. Liberals will attack his past as a COR member (which he has disavowed, but still) and record in the Alward government. But if he rope-a-dopes Gallant into packaged attacks on the past while he speaks bluntly about the future, it could get fun. This is a high-risk, high-reward pick. He reminds me of what one Tory strategist said of Bob Stanfield – “I don't know how the hell we get him in there, but if we do they'll never get him out of there”

Mel Norton is from Saint John. Next to Fredericton, that's been the hardest place for a guy to win the leadership from, because they both stir up a bit of resentment (and are the hardest places to get re-elected). As mayor, he made municipal politics more like C-SPAN and less like Big Brother. He's calm, competent and the kind of candidate urban Tories like. He makes Liberals in urban areas anxious, and Liberals don't have a lot on him. His campaign has been a bit safe and traditional, mostly taking stands on reversing things in safe Tory ridings that Liberals did because they were only unpopular in safe Tory ridings. His campaign would likely be professional, smooth, and pick a few more things to change that impact a bigger variety of swing ridings, including some in the North. He has spoken with passion and depth about some issues like poverty that will allow him to get centrist votes in the urban seats they need. Watching him and Gallant square off will likely be a chess match – no passion and big themes, but a strategic battle for the fifteen seats that will settle the election. There's a reason the Liberals tried to hand him tough files at the end in Saint John – they don't want to face him. 

Monica Barley – A fluently bilingual Moncton lawyer known in the party back rooms but with no political experience, backed by numerous veteran operators?  Have we seen it before? Sure. Of course, you're seeing it again because it worked for the PCs in 1999 and the Liberals in 2014. Her speech showed that there is a long way to go in political skills, as she was scripted and stilted. But she can hit her marks, and her appeal to put every seat in play is at the heart of her candidacy. She is the candidate most likely to battle Gallant everywhere, within appeal that could be provincial. She has also scooped up a lot of former Liberals in Moncton, and those who are still on the Gallant/LeBlanc enemies list have found a home with her. She is known as a formidable court presence as a lawyer, and her one-on-one meetings are widely seen as impressive, which is why many believe that the policy and political communications lessons will be learned quickly if she wins. Her strength is that she reminds people of 1998 Bernard Lord. Her weakness is that she reminds people of 2012 Brian Gallant. If she wins, expect Liberals to look at the Alward playbook against Gallant—take a few key stands, make her choose a side or get hit for straddling, try to communicate that whatever Galllant’s early struggles, she represents nothing but a restart of the learning curve. The interesting thing about that strategy is that it all comes down to her – if she performs more like Lord than Gallant, the results could look more like 1999 than 2014. So,yes, you've seen this movie – but it always comes down to the lead actor. 

My prediction: There's always a bias toward the least interesting outcome. MacDonald and Higgs will fight for third, but at least one of the also-rans is going to see an opportunity by helping Barley grow.  This will be because she has an opening for southern lieutenants, and because there is a LOT of pressure from party sages on the guys in the middle of the pack to avoid a southern coalition ganging up to stop Barley. There's real fear about the optics of Mike Allen and Blaine Higgs teaming up to stop Barley (that isn't fair, but I can tell you it has been said often these last 2 weeks). Someone will surprise with a Barley endorsement, and it will mean she and Norton head into a third ballot already knowing what the math says – Monica Barley over Mel Norton on the third ballot.

Monday, October 3, 2016

EFI : Just The Facts, Ma'am. I Promise.

So after all that, what do we know?

As you know, I've been pretty quiet since 2010 on the French Immersion issue. That's because I had my say when I was Education Minister, and I thought it was best that the debate happen with other voices. Plus, frankly, there are many other issues. 

Now that the decision has been made, I'm going to dedicate three blog posts this week to the issue. Not in debating it, but hopefully adding a couple of dimensions to the public debate from someone who got a crash course in it when that report hit my desk in 2008.

Later, I will look at where it fits in the broader language debate, and what issues the government will have to look at in the transition back to Grade 1.  This post will look at what we know after ten years worth of students starting EFI in Grade 3, and what we don't know yet. I thought it might be helpful because the government hasn't really explained the thinking behind the change – what they thought wasn't working, what they hope to achieve. I think we are in a post-persuasion era in politics, where our ministers minimize appearances so as not to antagonize us with arguments. Still, there is a void in reviewing facts, and as much as anyone I was interested in what we found out. 


One issue is the availability of immersion programming. If too few people have access to immersion, then it becomes a source of tension and inequality. These numbers surprised me – with Grade 1 immersion, there was a consistent rate of about 29-31% of anglophone students taking EFI. That's been steadily growing, hitting a high of 42% of students taking the new Grade 3 immersion programme.

Why? Well, literacy experts did tell us that they thought that many students were struggling in unequal classrooms – since very few students with special needs or from poor families took EFI, we were basically skimming off the top third of learners and leaving behind non-immersion classes where a very high percentage of students had learning challenges.  The theory was that leaving classes unstreamed until Grade 3 would help more learners get individual help and be more comfortable taking EFI in Grade 3. 

Of course, this has a spiral effect – the more marginal learners choose EFI, the more numbers go up, and with higher numbers comes more communities where the number of students taking immersion is high enough to offer EFI. So this may not just be individuals – we may be seeing more communities get Grade 3 EFI than got Grade 1.  This will be a statistic worth tracking when we change back.

ISSUE 2: Sticking with EFI

The biggest surprise was here. Before, we always saw some big declines as students struggle in EFI and drop into the non-immersion stream. There are some reasons for this.  While many argue persuasively that struggles in literacy can be dealt with just as well in the immersion setting, many parents respond to struggles by removing the child from EFI. This isn't totally irrational – there are few trained intervention workers in EFI, and unilingual parents feel sidelined from helping at home if instruction isn't in English. 

As we can see, the old Grade 1 programme lost about 16% of students after two years, and about 21% of kids by Grade 5. The new programme, starting in Grade 3, had that attrition rate down to 8.93% in the last measured year, 2015.

Why? Assuming students leave EFI if they struggle, it may be that giving teachers two unstreamed years to work with students made them more ready to learn a second language, or just more confident in general. I'd love to learn more about why this is happening from experts. 

So we can say that delaying the entry point to Grade 3 meant more students taking EFI and staying with it. Of course, that leads us to the big question….


This was the big tradeoff. The thinking in waiting to Grade 3 was that we could get more students learning to read and write their first language and thus ready to learn, and this would compensate for the delay in starting immersion. There were smart people who were skeptical. Because the first Grade 3 immersion class hasn't been tested yet, we simply don't know how their French skills stacked up to their Grade 1-starting peers. 

You can debate whether or not government should change without testing how the current system was working. I'm sticking with facts, and we just don't know. But of course, over time, we will have ten cohorts of Grade 3 immersion students and we will know. 

ISSUE 4: Teacher Support

You know this one. When the change was made, an NBTA survey showed 67% of teachers supported the move to Grade 3. Then-President Brent Shaw explained that, in deference to the strong contrary sentiment among EFI teachers, the Association stayed publicly neutral. And we all know that the NBTA has not been neutral this year – the Teachers’ Association supported staying at Grade 3 having been the ones to implement it for eight years. 

ISSUE 5: Impact on English Literacy

The biggest reason for the change was that eliminating streaming might help our low literacy rates. In a system where up to 40% of kids enter school with learning challenges and 98% of them don't take EFI, that meant non-immersion classes where over half the room struggled. 

This still is misunderstood, which you can blame on the minister who was explaining it. People asked why we thought waiting to Grade 3 would help improve the results of learning French. We thought it would help most with English, because struggling learners wouldn't get lost in classrooms where teachers had too many students with high needs. 

So, I had a look at the Grade 2 literacy results before and after. And, the results were interesting but unclear. Sorry about the self-serving table.  I'm not a detached observer, but the numbers are the Department’s and not mine. 

So what do we get from this? First of all, Bernard Lord was underrated – big improvements happened under the Quality Learning Agenda. I'm even happier we kept his testing regime instead of tearing it up to be partisan. 

On EFI?  It's inconclusive. Supporters of the Grade 3 point can indeed note that the best literacy score in NB history was the first class to not be streamed. There is a jump there. 

Supporters of the Grade 1 point will note that things have gone down again to where they were back in the days of Grade 1 EFI and early streaming. Now, there are a lot of other changes – government also began cutting in 2011 and has been cutting since, and other things like literacy mentors and teacher innovation funds were specifically cut. You could argue that not streaming helped and is still making it better than it would be, but programme cuts are bringing the rate down. Of course, you could also argue that in 2008 there were good programmes and more money, and these “good Kelly” programmes caused the rise, not the “bad Kelly” change to the EFI entry point.  Or maybe kids learn better when education ministers are over 6’4”. (Doubt it). 

We will likely know more by tracking these after the change. That will tell us a lot more about what caused the rise from 2007-10. Governments haven't been reporting these with as much fanfare, so I hope citizens and journalists will ask. 


Obviously, I have a dog in this fight, and I've tried to avoid argument here. Like all of you, I want the system to work, and that is most likely when we start by acknowledging the facts we know and the ones we need to find out. I've hoped every day that the decision of 2008 served kids well, at least as many as possible. And I hope the new policy does, too.  This is too important to worry about ego. Let's all try to get it right.