It's been a while since I've written. Things have been keeping me a little busy around here lately, and one of the things I've had to sacrifice has been writing for this blog. Sleep has been another. But I've managed to find a few minutes this evening to jot down some of my observations pertaining to the provincial by-election in the Sudbury riding.
We've been on a roller coaster ride pretty much since NDP MPP Joe Cimino resigned in late November, 2014 (see: "Cimino quits as Sudbury MPP, citing personal reasons", the Sudbury Star, November 20, 2014). As with most roller coasters, the tension kept building and building until we were all thrown for a massive loop back in mid-December – first with accusations from former Liberal candidate Andrew Olivier that Liberal backroom players and the Premier herself offered him a job to step back and allow a star candidate to be appointed (see: "Olivier says Liberals pressured him not to run", the Sudbury Star, December 15, 2014) We were rocked again a day later by news that Glenn Thiebeault, Sudbury's NDP MP would be resigning his seat federally, crossing the floor, and running for the provincial Liberals (see: "Glenn Thibeault to run for Liberals in Sudbury", the Northern Life, December 16, 2014).
What a couple of days those were. Since then, the ride has continued. In my opinion, the ride has completely overtaken the by-election – so much so that we've now found ourselves in an election about the ride itself. And there doesn't appear to be any way of slamming on the breaks to get off.
Here's a recap of some of the players involved in the by-election, for some of my readers who may not be familiar with Sudbury politics. Heck, many here in Sudbury have had to develop their own programmes, just to keep track of all of the changes.
Get Your Programmes Here!
Paula Peroni, who ran for the PC's in the spring general election, is back for the PC's again this time.
Glenn Thibeault, the former federal NDP MP, was appointed as Liberal nominee by Premier Kathleen Wynne. This triggered the resignation en masse of the Sudbury provincial Liberal Constituency Association (see: "Sudbury Liberals to elect a new executive", the Sudbury Star, January 17, 2015). Last year, the Toronto Liberals dithered and delayed holding a nomination contest in Sudbury as they searched for a star candidate (see: "Nomination delay 'mind-boggling': Bartolucci", the Sudbury Star, April 11, 2014). Rumour had it that Greater Sudbury Mayor Marianne Matichuk was being considered for the job, but eventually no star candidate was found, and first-time nominee Andrew Olivier received the nod from local Liberals.
This time, Andrew Olivier is back, running as Independent after being pushed aside by the provincial Liberals. After refusing to cooperate with a police investigation triggered by his accusations that he was offered a job by the Premier and back room operatives (see: "Wouldn't surrender recordings to OPP: Olivier", the Sudbury Star, January 15, 2015), Olivier released secret recordings he had made of two of three conversations that he had with prominent Liberals (see,"Olivier releases taped conversations: Listen Here", the Northern Life, January 15, 2015). Olivier, a paraplegic, apparently records many of his conversations as he's unable to take notes. New investigations have now been launched by the OPP and Elections Ontario, based on these recordings. It's unclear whether there is a third recording, but I predict we'll be hearing more about that in due course, at a time of Olivier's choosing in order to maximize its impact on the electorate.
The Green Party nominated Laurentian University Progressor Dr. David Robinson at a contested meeting (see: "David Robinson elected Green Party candidate", the Northern Life, January 7, 2015). He beat out former candidate and Laurentian University student Casey Lalonde. Robinson, who had previously signalled his intentions to run federally for the Green Party, appeared on the scene as a surprise candidate. He's well-known in the Sudbury community through his column in the Northern Ontario Business Magazine, as well as through the numerous media appearances he's made over the years.
In contrast, the NDP nominated a relative unknown in Suzanne Shawbonquit. Previous to the nomination contest (held 5 days after the writ was dropped), 2011 NDP candidate Paul Loewenberg had indicated his intent to seek the nomination – and then pulled out, endorsed Shawbonquit, and said he was going to focus on the federal nomination (see: "Loewenberg backing Shawbonquit in NDP race", the Sudbury Star, January 5, 2015). That left Shawbonquit to face the NDP's 2007 candidate Dave Battaino, and former Mayoral candidate John Caruso (former Ward 3 candidate Jesse Gaudet pulled out of the race at the nomination meeting and endorsed Shawbonquit). Shawbonquit won on the first ballot (see: "Suzanne Shawbonquit to run for NDP in Sudbury by-election", the Northern Life, January 11, 2015).
There are also several other candidates running, including former Mayoral candidate Jean-Raymond Audet, representing the People's Political Party, and independents James Waddell and John Turmel, an oustider to our community who is also the Guiness Book of World Records holder for most election runs. Finally, Sudbury's own perrennial no-hope candidate David Popescu has also entered the race.
Some other players who have emerged include all of the Party Leaders (and the PC's interim leader as well), each of which have visited this riding at least once since the by-election was called. Liberal campaign chair Pat Sorbara and prominent local Liberal Gerry Lougheed have also played instrumental roles in the campaign and are currently being investigated by the OPP and Elections Ontario. And former Greater Sudbury Mayor Marianne Matichuk had her name come up in a not-so flattering way in the conversation Olivier taped with Lougheed (see, "Olivier tape implies Matichuk sought Liberal nomination", the Northern Life, January 15, 2015). Last week, Matichuk announced that she'd be seeking the federal Liberal nomination in Sudbury (see: "Former Mayor hopes to seek federal Liberal nod", the Sudbury Star, January 23, 2015).
Election Observations So Far
With a little over a week to go in the campaign, it seems clear to me that the biggest winners of the by-election are likely to be the backroom deal-makers and spin doctors in the Liberal and New Democratic parties. This by-election has been completely about non-issues – Thibeault's floor crossing and the way that it made Sudburians feel; whether jobs were offered to Olivier or not (the tapes he released appear to confirm that the Liberals didn't offer him a specific job, and urged him only to pursue jobs or appointments after he publicly endorsed Glenn Thibeault). Local issues? In a by-election? Forget about it. There aren't any.
Well, that's not entirely true. Green David Robinson has been focusing on a plan to build Sudbury's mining supply cluster, turning Sudbury into the world capital of sustainable mining. He's had a number of releases laying down the planks of his plan (see: "Green candidate advocating for jobs", "David Robinson Wants to Create Jobs by Making Sudbury a Centre for Mining Excellence", "Geothermal Energy Can Fuel Dr. David Robinson's Plan to Make Sudbury a Global Centre for Mining Excellence", "Community-Based Renewable Energy Key Part of Dr. David Robinson's Jobs Plan for Sudbury", "Robinson has a Plan to Seize Opportunities, Bolster Sudbury's Mining Supply Sector", "Green Dr. David Robinson has a Comprehensive Plan for Developing the Ring of Firee", and "David Robinson Wants to Make Downtown Sudbury the Staging Area for Developing the Ring of Fire").
Although a lot of people who are interested in economic development and mining have taken note that the Green Party has been the industry's biggest champion in the by-election, Robinson's traction on this issue has been, shall we say, not as hoped for.
PC Paula Peroni has also been humming along with issues important to her Party's base, although I personally think that she's failed to connect these issues to Sudbury, specifically. Nevertheless, Peroni has been talking about highway maintenance contracts, her opposition to a carbon tax, and cutting red tape. In all seriousness, these vague generalities are better than anything that the Liberals, NDP or the major Indepenent have been talking about.
Glenn Thibeault has been meeting with a lot of cabinet Ministers talking about whatever it is that Liberals talk about at these sorts of meetings. I don't know – they've largely been closed door affairs. When everyone emerges, there seems to be little discussion about what went on inside, and a lot of talk about crossing the floor, the secret tapes, etc. I've caught Thibeault a few times mouthing the Liberals standard talking points about whatever, but that hardly qualifies as a discussion of the issues. Sure, he supports a PET scanner for Health Sciences North (as does every other candidate), but his own Party won't even commit to making sure Sudbury has this service.
Andrew Olivier has actually gone out of his way to avoid talking about any issues. I've seen him in action now at two all-candidates forums. His standard response to questions about issues and policy seems to be “We'll have to look into it and let Sudburians decide”. While being the easy way out on any issue, it also allows Olivier to use a lot of words to say nothing at all – something he is very good at. When he ran for the Liberals in 2014, he wasn't exactly excelling in policy-related discussions, but at least he had the talking points to refer to. This time out, Olivier's strategy has been to make the election largely about him – and credit where it's due, that's exactly what the election has been about. In my opinion, Olivier represents political cynicism at its best, and Sudbury will do itself a great disservice if he is elected MPP.
The Story of the Election for Me: Suzanne Shawbonquit
And then there's Suzanne Shawbonquit. Before the election, I had heard nothing but good things about Shawbonquit. Since the first all-candidates forum she participated in, I've heard nothing but bad things. In short, she has got to be the very worst candidate that has ever stood for the NDP in the Sudbury riding – a stronghold for that party. Not only is she a ver poor speaker, she doesn't seem to understand the issues. She clearly isn't well-versed in her own Party's policy book, and she's made commitments in this by-election which go against what I've long understood to be the NDP's policy.
Specifically, Shawbonquit has endorsed raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour – something that NDP Leader Andrea Horwath refused to commit to in the 2014 general election (see: "Horwath vows to raise minimum wage to $12", the Toronto Sun, May 15, 2014). And, more importantly for me, Shawbonquit has been very clear that she is against putting a price on carbon pollution. I'd like to explore this topic in greater detail in a few moments, but let me first finish regarding my observations about Shawbonquit as a candidate.
First off, the NDP has rarely let her speak. Even press releases seem to highligh Andrea Horwath over Shawbonquit. Timmins-James Bay NDP MPP Gilles Bisson has also been doing a lot of legwork on behalf of the NDP, appearing in our local media almost as much as Horwath (and more than Shawbonquit) with his dogged pursuit of Elections Ontario's investigation of the Olivier tapes (see: "Independence a must if Elections Act broken, Bisson says", the Northern Life, January 26, 2015). To me, it looks like the NDP know that they've got a major problem with their candidate, and they're managing her as best they can.
But ordinary NDP members have already been questioning the wisdom of the Sudbury NDP in nominating this candidate, particularly since Loewenberg or David Battaino would have been much more formidable. At least they would have been familiar with the NDP's policy book. But there's still good news for the NDP – word about Shawbonquit's weakness as a candidate really hasn't been filtering out through the local mainstream media, who have so far been willing to give her a pass on the issues. And of course, the NDP is going to have a strong ground game in the Sudbury riding – whether she's a terrible candidate or not (and she is), she's still got a very good chance of winning.
But back to carbon pollution for a moment. During the by-election, the Liberals started signalling that they are getting ready to put a price on carbon pollution (see: "Carbon pricing coming to Ontario, strategy to be unveiled this year", the Globe & Mail, January 13, 2015). As a result, it's been one of the few issues which have gained even a tiny bit of traction in this by-election, thanks almost entirely to David Robinson and Paula Peroni. Robinson, an economist and a Green, is obviously in favour of a carbon fee and dividend approach to carbon pricing (see: "What Economists Believe About the Economic Tools We Can Use to Respond to Climate Change", Economics for Northern Ontario, November 24, 2015, and "Carbon Dividend or Economically Efficient Allocation of Carbon Tax Revenues?", Economics for Northern Ontario, December 11, 2014). Peroni, who has some concerns about climate change, has started a petition to prevent carbon pricing altogether (see: "Tories say 'No way' to carbon tax, launch petition", the Northern Life, January 21, 2015).
Liberal Thibeault, of course, is towing the Party's line that they're going to study the issue further. What's interesting, though, is that in piece by Sudbury blogger Mick Lowe about why Thibeault left the NDP, Thibeault cited Thomas Mulcair's intransigence to look at any form of carbon pricing except for Cap & Trade (see: "A failure to evolve: In Defense of Glenn Thibeault", Mick Lowe, December 22, 2014). It certainly seems that Thibeault isn't a fan of Cap & Trade – which makes it all the more interesting that he's moved over to the provincial Liberals who appear now to be getting ready to join Quebec and California in a Cap & Trade system. While that might not be the final outcome, to this observer it appears quite likely that it's going to happen this way.
Independent Andrew Olivier thinks that a tax on carbon will lead to more pollution – although he has admitted publicly that he really doesn't have a clue about the issue.
Is the NDP Eliminating its Cap & Trade Position on Carbon Pricing?
And then there's the curious case of Suzanne Shawbonquit. In an all-candidates forum hosted by the Sudbury chapter of CARP and Friendly to Seniors, Shawbonquit was asked about putting a price on pollution. In response to a question on climate change and carbon pricing, she said climate change is an issue, but that she was opposed to a carbon tax. Full stop. I found this a little surprising at the time, as I expected her to mention the NDP's policy on Cap & Trade for big emitters. But there wasn't any mention of that. Maybe it was just a rookie oversight.
The following night at the CBC radio debate, Shawbonquit was again asked about the importance of the climate crisis and whether she supported putting a price on carbon pollution. That night, she said climate change was “important”, but that she opposed a carbon tax. She expanded on yesterday's answer, indicating that a carbon tax would make things unaffordable for people – especially people who are less well off. Again, no mention of Cap & Trade. Bizarrely, later in the debate she mentioned having spoken with a 12 year old who had a dream of starting a renewable energy business. Of course, it wasn't apparent to her that her position on pricing carbon pollution would frustrate that child's dream considerably, but I digress.
All of this has really got me thinking. Maybe this isn't a rookie mistake. Maybe Shawbonquit's opposition to carbon pricing signals a larger shift in the NDP that they're going to oppose putting a price on carbon pollution – just as the B.C. NDP did a few years ago. Perhaps now that the Liberals are thinking about actually acting towards making Cap & Trade a reality, the NDP – a party which relishes its unbridled opposition to anything the government does - has grown uncomfortable with its support of a Liberal policy, and they're backing off.
Look, it's just not good enough for the NDP to continue to insist that it cares about the environment and climate change, and then to go on to oppose any initiative which might actually reduce emissions. Remember, the NDP has been in power in Nova Scotia, BC and Manitoba – and the've failed to put a price on carbon pollution in every circumstance. If they're now shifting their position in Ontario, this is really a clear signal that they can't be taken seriously on this issue. In my opinion, the NDP's credibility on climate change took a hit a long time ago, when federal Leader Tom Mulcair embraced expanding the tar sands through his support of the Energy East bitumen pipeline and by reversing the B.C. NDP's provincial opposition to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline project (see: "Greenwashing on Climate Change Starting to Take a Toll on the NDP", Sudbury Steve May, November 4, 2014). That and the NDP's recent support for investor state provisions in the Canada-South Korea Free Trade deal (see: "NDP back Canada-Korea free trade pact" the Huffington Post, September 24, 2014) has sent a strong signal to those paying attention that the NDP simply can't be trusted to take a proactive approach on the environment and climate change.
In that respect, Green David Robinson's press release has a certain resonance (see: "Shawbonquit's Position on Carbon Pricing 'Shameful' says Robinson", the Green Party of Ontario, January 26, 2015). Robinson calls the NDP the “anti-environment party”. And really, he ought to know. Robinson – like a growing number of Canadians concerned about climate change – used to be an NDP supporter. In Robinson's case, he was with the NDP for around 30 years, but had to leave when, like Thibeault, the NDP refused to support anything but a Cap & Trade plan for carbon pricing. As an economist, and as someone who has written extensively on the subject of carbon pricing, Robinson knows that a Cap & Trade approach likely isn't going to work.
Back to Shawbonquit and my suspicion that what we're seeing in Sudbury may be a part of a shift in Andrew Horwarth's “new populist” NDP away from evidenced-based policy on climate change and the environment. We should have a fuller picture on the evening of January 27th, as all candidates have been invited by the Citizens Climate Lobby for a discussion around the topics of climate change and carbon pricing. This session, being livestreamed over the internet, will assuredly allow Shawbonquit to set the record straight on exactly where Andrea Horwarth and the provincial NDP stand on climate change and carbon pricing. I for one certainly look forward to hearing Shawbonquit say something – anything – well, anything positive, anyway – about putting a price on carbon. The truth of the matter is that while I'm a partisan, the climate crisis is simply too important of a matter to play partisan politics with. If we've lost a climate allay in the NDP, that would be a major blow for the climate justice movement.
The Sideshow vs. The Issues
So, about those polls (to which I'm not going to provide links). Suffice it to say that I don't put a lot of stock in the polls, but I think it may be fair to mention what the polls are revealing in broad terms. Really, these trends don't surprise me in the least. Taken together, it looks like the polls are suggesting that the by-election is becoming a show down between the Liberals and the NDP, with Independent Olivier positioned to play spoiler. Further, if the polls are to be believed, the PC's support is in the process of collapsing, and the Green support never really registered in the first place. Of course, I find this interesting, largely because it's been the PC's and the Greens who have almost exclusively been talking about the issues, leaving the “sideshow” to the other 3 players – Thibeault, Shawbonquit and Olivier.
The media is noticing. There have been a few pieces lately which have lamented the lack of local issues being discussed in this campaign (see especially "The heart makes a poor voting booth", Mark Gentili, the Northern Life, January 26, 2015). But the objections have been pretty light-weight so far – certainly we're far more likely to keep hearing about the sideshow over the next 10 days than we are about the issues. As many know, elections don't appear to be a good time to have a conversation about the issues.
So, if Sudburians go out and elect a Liberal or a New Democrat or, in a massive fit of short-sighted protest, an Independent who has frankly brought so very little to the table – well, as I said earlier, it will be a vindication of the backroom dealers and spin-doctors who run campaigns out of Toronto (in Olivier's defence, there is some indication that his campaign is at least being run out of Sudbury). Those who are concerned about the issues – things like how the provincial government can work with the City to make a better effort at creating jobs – or whether the City can really afford the Maley Drive extension – or how the Ring of Fire can be developed in a way which sees some benefit go to Sudbury (these are just three examples) – it looks to me like we're likely going to be the biggest losers on election day.
In short, those concerned about the health of our democratic system of government are about to find that their interests are being trumped by partisan games. It's no surprise to me, given that I've long written about how the Liberals and especially the NDP have sacrificed their values, their policies and just about everything to the raw pursuit of power. We're seeing that play out now on a large canvas here in the Sudbury by-election. Woe to us.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)
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