Archive for the ‘Ottawa Politics’ Category


Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

 InterChange Public Affairs president  Massimo Bergamini is Executive Director of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA). This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail.

Noted American economist Paul Romer once remarked that a crisis was a terrible thing to waste.

By that he meant that every once in a while an event comes along that shakes up the existing order and brings situations into enough focus for fresh consideration.

The recent decision by the Copenhagen Zoo to euthanize a healthy young giraffe and conduct a public necropsy of the animal before feeding its remains to their lions might not have constituted a crisis in the classic sense of the word for the global zoo community, but it certainly served to bring the role and practices of modern zoos into focus.

That event – and the subsequent culling of four healthy lions by the same zoo — caused a media firestorm in parts of Europe and in North America where accredited zoos have a different philosophical and scientific perspective on captive breeding and collection management.

Predictably, this was also grist for the mill of those ideologically opposed to the very existence of zoos.

But although isolated events such as these can foster extreme views on zoos and aquariums, they also create an important teachable moment for the accredited zoo community.

And seizing an opportunity to engage in a conversation on the role and place of the modern zoo in society may never have been more important than it is now.

When the Toronto zoo opened in 1974, the planet was losing one or two species a year. Today the world loses two to three species each day.

And what is most frightening is that this dramatic and accelerating loss of biodiversity hardly seems to make a ripple in the public consciousness.

What does it say about our society and our values as consumers of information that when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced last November that the Western Black Rhino – last seen in 2006 – was officially extinct, other than for a few online and specialized media outlets the story got no play?

Perhaps this is a result of growing urbanization and the loss of familial connections to nature. Perhaps it is a reflection of a society more and more attuned to digital connections and interactions as proxies for personal relations.

And perhaps that is what explains the growing belief among many in the anti-zoo community that zoos and aquariums are outdated artifacts and that today animals should tell their stories through digital technologies.

As if digital interactions can ever replace being able to see, smell, hear and touch an animal — what a frightening, alienating and dangerous vision of the natural world!

This is a  vision of the world that, while ostensibly grounded in conservationist and environmental principles,  is dangerously disconnected from reality.

The proponents of a world without zoos protest well and often but offer little in terms of concrete strategies and on the ground action to counter the reality of the growing human encroachment on natural habitats and accelerating loss of biodiversity.

Today, accredited zoos and aquariums on the other hand, are institutions devoted to applied conservation and education.

Canadian zoos and aquariums are part of a global community behind some of the most remarkable conservation success stories, bringing species such as the Black Footed Ferret and the Vancouver Island Marmot back from the brink of extinction.

Accredited zoos are also a community of deeply committed professionals who work on the ground supporting in-situ projects on everything from species reintroduction to local community economic development to habitat remediation.

But perhaps most importantly, zoos are portals to nature; unique bridges between a rapidly urbanizing society and natural habitats degraded by unsustainable human activities.

In the 19th century and even the early part of the 20th century, zoos were reflections of a now vanished world where wild animals were still common and ecologically robust.

Many thought of zoos as museums, their animals as parts of dioramas, with little consideration that they could one day become extinct. Zoos were seen as animal owners, not stewards of biodiversity.

That was then.

Now, zoos are reinventing themselves as new kinds zoological institutions, not just better versions of the old ones.  And their educational mission is no longer just to represent the natural world, but to help heal it and change it.

Worldwide, zoos and aquariums attract over 700 million visitors a year. That is 10 percent of the world’s total population. That percentage is even higher in Canada where our accredited institutions attract close to nine million visitors every year.

It is that remarkable reach that zoos and aquariums are leveraging every day, fashioning emotional connections between their visitors and the wondrous animals in their care, recruiting a new generation of conservationists and helping fashion a future more sustainable than the present.


Sunday, March 16th, 2014

When the FCM big city mayors caucus met in Ottawa recently, their call for more federal spending on affordable housing and infrastructure got second billing to Rob Ford joining his colleagues for the first time since his election three years ago.

Ottawa Citizen City Hall columnist Joanne Chianello wrote that it was not surprising that the mayors’ demands were overshadowed in the media by the Rob Ford sideshow since “there has never been an FCM meeting that didn’t end in cities’ calling for more infrastructure money from the federal government.”

Normally I wouldn’t quibble with a columnist taking some liberties with the historical record to make a rhetorical point – particularly since it has been true for the last few years — but in this case it obscured the real story from the mayors’ meeting.

To get at it, we have to step back a decade to the early days of the cities’ push for a new deal from the federal government.

Back then, FCM news releases typically ended with references about a new deal for cities having to be “about more than money” and the need for a municipal “seat at the table”.

For the mayors, getting that seat at the table was at least as important as increased federal funding for infrastructure or housing. They wanted to stop being cast in the role of supplicants of federal largesse.

With a federal government and Prime Minister–Paul Martin–ostensibly looking for “transformative change”, they argued that above all, a new deal had to be about a new political relationship that recognized the growing importance of cities in Canada’s political, social and economic landscape.

And ending their cities’ status as the poor relations of the Canadian federation was behind the mayors’ call for the so-called gas tax transfer, which would become the centrepiece of the new deal.

Of course the gas tax transfer was about money – a lot of it. But for the mayors it was also a new institutional arrangement that would recognize and formalize a federal interest in cities that went well beyond the limits imposed by our 19th century constitution.

The real story from the recent Ottawa meeting of the big city mayors is not so much the antics of the Toronto mayor or whether he was a distraction. It’s that we may be witnessing a return to the “mayors-as-supplicants” model of municipal-federal relations. And that’s bad news for cities.

Of course the mayors don’t see themselves on bended knee when they come to Ottawa.  But when you frame the cities’ agenda as being about federal money, you’re playing Ottawa’s game, and in this game, the federal government is top dog.

Settling for the status quo carries with it two serious problems for Canada’s cities: first it means reducing the federal role and interest in cities to investments in infrastructure and puts the multitude of cross-jurisdictional issues that play out in cities on the back burner; two it suggest that Canada’s mayors accept a return to a 19th century vision of federalism that belies Canada’s urban present and future.

The greatest political gains made by municipal governments over the last decade came as a result of a thoughtful, passionate and effective cities’ campaign and narrative focused on the central role of cities in an evolving Canada.

It all went south with the 2008 recession and the promise of mucho federal infrastructure cash.

The last five years saw the largest federal infrastructure investments ever in Canada’s cities.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that on the national scene, the political clout of Canada’s big city mayors is probably the lowest it’s been in over a decade.

The mayors cannot be blamed for embracing the opportunity to get the lion’s share of  stimulus spending.  But focusing 24/7 on infrastructure (and continuing to do so now) served to narrowcast the political relationship and move the discussion away from the core issue the mayors had been pushing for years: fixing an outdated institutional system.

With a federal election a little more that a year away, the mayors are likely starting to think of how to best jockey for position in the run-up.  If their last meeting is any indication, for Canada’s big city mayors, the future will continue to be painted the colour of money.



Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Sometimes really smart people say really dumb things. We got a perfect  example yesterday courtesy of Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra.

Appearing before the Commons Transport Committee to explain the corporation’s decision to eliminate home delivery, the head of Canada Post made a comment about seniors that showcased about the same tonal acuity as Marie-Antoinette’s “let them eat cake”.

Asked to explain how the cancellation of home mail delivery would affect seniors, Chopra replied that seniors had told the corporation that they wanted more fresh air and exercise in their lives. In other words, opined the Canada Post supremo, this was good news.

Any reporter covering the committee who had been wondering what the story from the daylong proceedings would be, had their answer when Chopra finished suggesting that seniors welcomed the end of home delivery because of the healthier lifestyle choices that would follow in its wake.

In addition to painting the corporation as woefully out of touch, Chopra’s unfortunate framing had the effect of burying Canada Post’s overall narrative and the business rationale for its decision at the bottom of the story.

But what became an embarrassing soundbite and headline for Canada Post and Chopra, could easily have been avoided–and that’s the takeaway–with a little preparation and a little humility.

It’s likely that having an emergency Transport committee hearing called after the House had risen caught the corporation a little flat-footed and contributed to a less-than-stellar public relations effort. But questions about the impact of the elimination of home delivery on seniors and people with disabilities were totally predictable and the Corporation’s public affairs staff should have prepared an appropriate Qs & As strategy as part of the CEO’s briefing.

There’s no doubt that “how will seniors get their mail”, is a tough question for a PR team to nail, particularly when you’re on the hot seat and your organization has yet to work out a credible answer.   But the better part of valour truly is discretion, and in this case it should have meant avoiding disingenuous answers.

In prepping Mr. Chopra for his committee appearance,  the Canada Post PR team should have done two things. First, they should have tried to put some bedrock under their answers by leveraging the long transition period before home delivery is abolished as the foundation for their messaging. Second, they should have advised their CEO that his demeanour had to balance decisiveness and humility;  that he would have to acknowledge that Canada Post had no ready-made answer to that particular question, and tell the Committee that the lengthy transition would allow for the fine-tuning of the corporate plan, and that he was committed to finding a solution.

Such an answer might not have made opposition politicians (or the boss) happy, but sometimes when you’re in corporate communications and are called in at the last minute to put a golden sheen on whatever the C-suite has hatched,  you just need to buy some time for yourself and for the organization. In those circumstances, it’s less about being a hero and  more about surviving to fight another day.

Had the Canada Post brass adopted that approach to their committee appearance yesterday, Mr. Chopra might not be seen today as the man with all the answers, but neither would he be the poster boy for monopolistic arrogance.


Sunday, December 8th, 2013

Faced with a back-end loaded Building Canada infrastructure program that will see significant funding available to municipalities only in the program’s twilight years, more and more local governments are looking at how to best position themselves in what promises to be a highly competitive environment.

For some—mostly larger and mid-sized municipalities—this means turning to their intergovernmental affairs (IGA) departments for answers. But ironically, it may be the smaller municipalities–for which the IGA department is the mayor and council–that may be best positioned.

Let’s look at why.

Canada’s Constitution makes intergovernmental relations in the municipal context more complex than those at the interprovincial or federal-provincial level.

While the federal and provincial/territorial orders of government enjoy – legally, if not politically — relative equality and operate within well-established institutional arrangements that facilitate and even require formal relations, municipalities’ subsidiary status often forces them to create political and administrative space for their agendas to be considered.

In this context, classic models of intergovernmental relations that rely on formal channels and methods of communications are not well adapted to effective (as measured by the ability to influence positive outcomes) municipal intergovernmental relations. This is particularly true when it comes to municipal relations with the federal government.

Because of the political and administrative firewalls created by our Constitution, municipal relations with Ottawa tend to be more idiosyncratic and follow less formal patterns and approaches to institutional communications than do relations between the federal government and provincial/territorial governments.

The absence of formal institutional linkages between cities and the federal government mean that favourable outcomes, on the whole, tend to be driven by political, more than policy considerations.  Effective municipal intergovernmental relations therefore tend to have more in common with traditional advocacy than traditional intergovernmental relations.

Being successful in this environment require strategic and tactical flexibility—the ability to turn on a dime to seize opportunities—as well as the capacity to build networks, partnerships and alliances and to identify opportunities and seize them. And this is true whether you’re a municipality looking at supporting the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) push for better housing policies, or one hoping to get to the front of the funding queue for a major infrastructure project. This is why– even though they may not have the staff horsepower of larger cities–smaller municipalities may have an advantage, provided they are poised to act on it.

This has practical implications for the structure and operations of every municipal intergovernmental function, be it formal or not. It means shedding many of the trappings of formal intergovernmental relations and embracing a more dynamic approach built on sound, timely intelligence and analysis, and the capacity to mobilize networks quickly and efficiently.

For larger municipalities with formal IGA functions it will mean assessing how well roles, responsibilities and decision-making within their IGA team align with a core advocacy function built to be nimble and responsive. It will mean assessing how well equipped they are to tell their core story in a compelling and timely way to all of their key networks—government, media, potential allies—and to using this narrative to create room for favourable political action.

In the campaign for scarce federal infrastructure dollars, the ability to engage a network, mobilize a community, and tell a compelling story in a timely fashion will matter more than the number of official meetings one has been able to secure.


Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Remember the oil filter commercial from the 1980s — the one where the mechanic suggested paying a bit more up front for a better oil filter to avoid expensive repairs later?

That was good advice — policy wonks would call it following the precautionary principle.  It applies as much to regular maintenance on cars as to climate change mitigation—measures to reduce greenhouse gases–and adaptation—policies designed to harden and adapt infrastructure to extreme weather events.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the latter, it seems the federal government decided some time ago its policy engine didn’t need an oil filter.

But if any doubt still lingered in Canada about the critical importance of hardening our infrastructure against extreme weather, it should be put to rest by the disaster that struck southern Alberta this week.

In addition to its immediate and terrifying impact on people and property, the effects of extreme weather linger much longer as their economic shock waves are felt long after the crisis has passed.

According to a report from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce the damage from the Alberta floods could strip a full percentage point from Canada’s economic growth this year.

Then there’s the cost of cleaning up the mess–which will include not only residential reconstruction but also major repairs to highway and other public infrastructure—that’s expected to top $6 billion.

That means any hopes the Alberta government had of balancing its budget in the short term are shot. And at a minimum, the post-flood clean up raises questions about the federal government’s own plans for near-term fiscal balance as Ottawa will no doubt be called in to help in the reconstruction of key economic infrastructure.

With the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other credible national and international organizations forecasting that extreme weather occurrences will increase in number and scope, one would think that mitigating their impact would be a priority for all governments.

Unfortunately, as the tortuous path followed by climate change negotiations will attest, that’s not been the case.

The economic dislocation that some fear would follow the adoption of stringent carbon reduction measures may help explain the lack of meaningful progress in the area of climate change mitigation. But there is no economic cover for inaction on adaptation, especially when the government of Canada spends billions each year on unrelated infrastructure projects.

The best explanation for the absence of a federal infrastructure adaptation strategy probably comes from a report examining the federal-municipal relationship, released three weeks ago by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

The FCM report describes a relationship built around short-term considerations more likely to produce photo-ops than lasting structural fixes.

The report doesn’t assess blame on the current government, but says the mess stems form an outdated and broken federal system that blurs accountabilities–often leaving the provinces out of the loop—and encourages boutique federal programs that fail to get at the root of the problem.

Many in the municipal sector hoped that Transport minister Denis Lebel’s six-month consultations last year on a long-term infrastructure plan might provide the platform for such a strategy.

FCM and a number of other organizations including the Insurance Bureau of Canada used the consultations to call for a long-term infrastructure plan that would facilitate extreme weather adaptation in cities.

But when the federal government announced its $ 53 billion 10-year infrastructure program in the last Budget, it was silent on the question of adaptation.

The devastation that flood waters visited on communities in southern Alberta was a stark reminder of how vulnerable our cities have become to extreme weather events.  Seeing the economic capital of Alberta battered and paralyzed by the murky waters of the Saskatchewan River was sobering.

The federal government is now measuring options available to it as it considers its response to this latest weather-related disaster.

The question now is whether the scenes of devastation that played out in southern Alberta will be enough to create the political room for a fundamental re-think of the federal role in extreme weather adaptation.

In keeping with the Harper government’s focus on the bottom line, it may be time for advocates to start framing climate change adaptation as preventive maintenance for Canada’s economic engine.  With extreme weather events on the rise, we can pay now, or we can pay the piper later.


Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

A little exercise for you: Next time you open your paper or surf the news online, count the number of times that stories concerning the Harper government carry e-mailed comments attributed to government or party spokespersons. Then count the number of times that such comments do not come with the e-mail qualifier.

I counted at least half a dozen news stories last week alone where a government spokesperson provided comment by way of e-mailed media lines. If you add Twitter to the mix, the majority of official replies to direct queries or emerging stories now come in digital format.

Live, on the record (or even on background) conversations between a reporter and a media relations officer or spokesperson are now the exception. E-mailing replies to media queries has become the standard operating procedure in federal media relations shops across the country.

Much has been said about the current government’s centralized message-control that would spur this robotic approach to media relations. What’s worrisome is that the practice is becoming more prevalent in other organizations, private and nonprofit alike.

Whenever an organization is now pressed by a reporter on a fast-breaking story with problematic undertones, the default response is to e-mail talking points that more often than not have only a vague familial connection to the questions being asked or the issue.

This is one of the subtle unintended consequences of the rise of digital communications: the convergence of enabling technology (digital messaging), long-standing suspicion (and fear) of the media, and dwindling resources and growing time-pressures in traditional newsrooms–call it media relations 2.0.

So, what does media relations 2.0 mean for corporate communications?

Deflecting or bridging are well known media relations techniques, and there was a time when media lines were crafted to help spokespeople deflect and bridge their way to a particular corporate take on an issue.

The difference is that in the past, these lines were used as part of the two-way dynamic of interviews and question and answer sessions that tested their validity and often overtook them. In media relations 2.0, talking points have become take-it-or-leave propositions.

But just because organizations are getting away with this, and everybody seems to be doing it, doesn’t make it a good communication practice.

For one thing, this new approach to media relations only contributes to suspicion and mistrust on both sides of the hack and flack divide.

It is a sign of an organization that can’t see the strategic forest for the tactical trees when talking points grudgingly inserted by reporters like non-sequiturs in news stories are viewed as more valuable than developing relations of trust with those same journalists.

Basically, in the media relations 2.0 paradigm, marking each and every story with unadulterated corporate DNA is more important than ensuring you have the reputational capital to carry the day when an e-mailed or Tweeted reply just won’t be enough.

Media relations 2.0 is also fundamentally unimaginative and reactive.

At its core is a mistrust of the mainstream media and a lack of understanding of its role and importance in framing public perceptions, and more fundamentally, of how it works.

As a result, great corporate stories remain untold or are poorly told, or are told by someone else.

The upside is that unlike the old-fashioned media relations I engaged in as a government flack in the late 90s, media relations 2.0 is safe–there’s no danger of being misquoted or losing control of an interview.  The problem is, it’s like the safety of standing on the sidelines during your high school formal: no one turned you down, but neither did you dance.


Monday, June 3rd, 2013

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”

Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz

Federal politicians attending the meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in Vancouver last weekend might be forgiven for feeling a little like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

For years the FCM conference had been the place where prime ministers and wannabe prime ministers came to lavish mayors and their cities, towns and villages with promises of federal programs and federal dollars.

It was also the place for the heaping of praise and gratitude on prime and other ministers for delivering on said promises.

On rare occasions, like Paul Martin’s 2002 New Deal speech, some of them spoke of fixing a broken system that was keeping Canadian cities at the back of the global pack. But the expectation seemed to be that the really good applause line would always be about the money.

Political handlers and speechwriters in Ottawa must have been scrambling when they received advance copies last week of an FCM report that emphatically states that it’s really not about the money.

In fact, the FCM report, titled The State of Canada’s Cities and Communities 2013suggests that Ottawa’s chequebook fixation is really what’s wrong with the system.

The report says that until the federal government owns up to this and starts measuring success not by how many dollars it spends but by how many problems it fixes, Canada’s cities—and by extension the country–will continue to struggle.

Coming from an organization and a sector that over the last decade has arguably been the most successful in advocating for more federal spending this can seem a little odd if not downright ungrateful.

It’s actually gutsy, smart and important.  Let’s look at why.

It’s important because FCM’s report forces us to look behind the curtain and take the full measure of the Great Oz that is how Ottawa decides.

While the report pulls its punches somewhat and avoids detailed critiques of federal programs aimed at cities, it does paint a picture of a system built around short-term considerations and lubricated by political expediency.

And this should matter to all Canadians, particularly those who care how their tax dollars are spent.

It’s also smart.

FCM is careful—and rightly so–not to point fingers at any one government or political party.

At the root of the problem is not pandemic venality but a 21st century political relationship governed by a 19th century Constitution.

Under our Constitution, the federal government has no direct role vis-à-vis local governments, but this has not kept it from using its spending power to intervene in municipal affairs, particularly in the area of infrastructure funding.

It’s not surprising. After all investing in roads, bridges, wastewater systems and even bocce courts gives even the most fiscally conservative MP something tangible to write about in their householder.

It’s great to talk about trade deals and fighter jets and tough on crime policies, but when you want to explain to your constituents what it is exactly you do for them, it’s nice to be able to point to something with three dimensions from time to time.

Let’s not kid ourselves, therein lies the political appeal of the federal-municipal relationship.

But while the announcement of a 10-year funding program in the last federal budget will keep MPs well stocked with ribbons to cut and signs to post for at least two election cycles, it would put FCM’s advocacy caravan on blocks for a decade. Unless, that is, FCM opened another front in the federal-municipal relationship—which its report does.

But most of all, the report is gutsy.

It would have been easy for FCM to sugar coat its analysis to spare federal sensitivities. There will no doubt be some gnashing of teeth in more than a few federal offices,  but the gentler, kinder version federal officials would have preferred would  also have missed the mark.

The report names the problem: An outdated system that gives governments cover for short-term, politically motivated policies and inaction in the face of growing cross-jurisdictional policy challenges

Worse, the report says the current system helps create the illusion of action through the proliferation of boutique federal programs that provide visibility but little in the form of accountability.

So what’s the answer?

Rightly, FCM rejects any talk of opening up the constitution. It tried that in the early 90’s and it was a dead end.

Instead, it calls for a clear federal policy and accountability framework to govern federal programs in this area.

In practical terms, it would mean that federal policies would come with a clear expression of the federal interest, measurable outcomes and an incentive to design programs that actually do what they’re supposed to do.

It sounds simple, but achieving it won’t be.

Judging by the speeches delivered by federal politicians at the FCM conference, it will take time for them to digest what the cities’ new agenda means for them and their respective narratives.

FCM invited us to peek behind the curtain. It’s challenge is now keeping it open.


Monday, March 25th, 2013
Where is Canada going in its somewhat reluctant role as a development donor?  The announcement in last week’s federal budget of the absorption of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) is a curiosity.
What is curious is the a) necessity of the takeover — CIDA was always a Crown corporation attached to DFAIT and b) the seeming lack of understanding in the Pearson building that taking over CIDA means that they will now be consumed by the development business at some cost to whatever global political agenda they may have.
Maintaining the flow of development dollars trumps diplomacy every time. DFAIT is now trapped into becoming a CIDA writ large.  The Pearson building now will have to dedicate its energy not to foreign relations, but to the health of pregnant women in distant lands.  The commandeered CIDA budget in short will dictate their overall priorities. And that, depending on your point of view, may be for the better.
But let’s start with the status quo ante.
DFAIT has been living off past glories for a long time.  Modern communications and an ever expansive foreign policy role for the Prime Minister’s Office (both under Liberal and Conservative governments) have long restricted any meaningful policy role for DFAIT.
Truth is foreign affairs officers manage buildings in countries in order to provide a workable space for, in order of importance, Immigration, CIDA, and  department of Defence officials. As to development issues, they know something, but not more other than the CIDA budget is four times the size of DFAIT’s.
CIDA was created because the mandarins of External Affairs thought they were wasting too much time on third world countries, time better spent in Paris, London, and Washington.
On the other hand, on the international stage, CIDA punches above its weight.  The problem is its weight is about 85 pounds.
As Canada was never a colonial power, it has never felt any post-colonial guilt, and the development budget reflects that, even if it was Lester Pearson who came up with the fairy dust target of 0.7 percent of western country budgets dedicated to aid.
There is no doubt that the agency is beset by numerous design flaws, not the least of which is a scandalous reluctance to hire and promote immigrant Canadians who actually speak the  languages and understand the cultures of the countries in which CIDA operates.
It’s also beset not by the absence of clear development objectives and accountabilities, but by a proliferation of them over the years.
In its early days, CIDA fed a host of Liberal-friendly domestic NGOs, although recently it has been far better balanced between local pork and real international assistance.  Maternal care as per the Muskoka Declaration is now the key priority, but not much thought has gone into the question of how do you assist kids you have helped keep alive after they are five.
The complete untying of aid under Bev Oda is a policy landmark for which she received scant credit. Since then, CIDA has paid far more attention to Canadian businesses abroad (who are investing sustainable money and creating jobs), than DFAIT.
The cynic in me suspects what is really behind this budget move is that DFAIT has not so secretly coveted CIDA’s budget. Conferences are held in Bali on development issues not on keeping pigeons out of the rain gutters of embassy buildings.  The UN wants to talk to Canadians about its annual contribution, currently funded by CIDA, not what we think about peace in the Middle East.
The current political flux, with a caretaker minister at the helm of CIDA and a powerful minister of foreign affairs, makes this move look like a well-timed bank heist.
That said, the optimist in me hopes that the move, as done for example by the US in realigning USAID and the State Department, will give development a higher political priority within the Harper government.
Development, intelligently done, should be a major policy concern for any Canadian government, and not just a plaything for bureaucrats looking for UN jobs and NGOs after a steady stream of airline tickets. A lot of serious thinking has gone into development economics much of it on governance and education as the key drivers of change, all of which has yet to appear seriously in official policy.
The reason development has a reputation for ineffectiveness is largely because the scope of the challenge was grossly under-estimated and the means to address the obstacles to growth largely misunderstood.
Ask yourself if we have failed in a hundred years to address poverty on First Nations reserves, why would anyone think Canada could succeed in an African or Bangladeshi village?
In recent years, CIDA has made progress towards greater international and domestic relevance but not enough to satisfy a suspicious political establishment and a skeptical public.
In his book, While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World, Andrew Cohen does a good thing in lamenting and trying to correct Canadian apathy about the rest of the world.
I do not share Cohen’s vision of Trudeau  internationalism, but when hundreds of people wash up on our shores clearly we cannot afford the complacency of thinking we live in Fortress North America. And, at the risk of sounding like a scold, somewhere in the mess of development there is a simple moral duty to help those in need.
Whether the development portfolio now sinks into obscurity or whether it leads Canada’s engagement with the emerging countries of the world, remains a question.
Canada could do with a serious re-thinking of its development plans.  The UK and Sweden have done it, and are making some worthwhile new initiatives.
A bright idea might be to make the merged organization into the Department of International Development and Foreign Affairs.  Perhaps this takeover will spur just that.


Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Recently, a number of Quebec commentators mused about the extensive use of social media before and during the current Quebec election campaign, with several calling it the province’s first election 2.0. In an op ed in yesterday’s L’,  Chantal Hebert waded into the discussion with a thoughtful piece   on the true value of social media in election campaigns, arguing that online discussions tend to be far removed from voters’ mainstreet concerns.

Hebert says that while there are good tactical reasons for using social media in election campaigns, it would be a mistake to assume that the conversations populating the various online platforms are the ones that resonate with ordinary voters.

The key problem is that  (in Quebec and in Canada) political parties have yet to embrace the social paradigm that actually drives engagement and digital sharing.  We can see it in the content that they generate. Complex issues are dumbed down to a few simple talking points. Individuals and personalities become (in some cases, literally) black and white cardboard cutouts.

This content is based on what Andrew Coyne calls “the totalitarian assumptions that inform most advertising, and its close cousin, politics” He adds, “in the world inhabited by this brand or that party, nothing bad ever happens, nothing ever goes wrong, no one ever is unhappy”.

It’s  what I call the Pleasantville school of advertising. Pleasantville was the 1998 indie film where two teenagers are transported into the black and white world of a 50’s sitcom.  And it’s a view of the world that still dominates Canadian politics.

A good example can be seen in negative ads (its not a coincidence that these are often in black and white). Once the exception, these have now become the staple of election campaigns.  More interesting though, is their use between elections where political parties traditionally do not engage in large media buys and rely on earned and social media.

A quick look at the YouTube channel of both the NDP and CPC shows that neither of their most recent negative ads went viral.  The NDP ad generated some 68,000 hits while the CPC anti-Mulcair ad generated a little over 30,000 views. And a large number of those were views not from social platforms, but from the online pages of mainstream media outlets.  Hardly game changing stuff.

This traditional advertising and political marketing paradigm is well-suited to large traditional media buys as ways to frame consumer perceptions, but not social engagement.  It works when you can buy eyeballs and multiple views. It fails miserably when your audience is your medium.


Because effective digital engagement requires content that is sharable. That means content that members of diverse online communities will feel comfortable sharing among their peers. It means content that is real.  Anything else misses the point.

Let’s look at one politician who got it.  We don’t have to go far, right here in Canada, Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi went from long shot to mayor, largely thanks to smart, funny and personal social-media engagement.

Three things distinguished his use of social media from that of our federal parties in the last  election: content, tone and genuine engagement. Mr. Nenshi was able to use social media to engage with a growing audience because, from day one, his message was positive, fresh and, most important, sharable. His commitment to dialogue built political capital and most importantly, trust. And while municipal elections don’t have the partisan trapping of their federal or provincial cousins, Nemshi succeeded by avoiding shrill personal attacks and focusing instead on positive and optimistic messaging. Ultimately, his approach translated into boots on the ground, contributions to the campaign and votes.

In the last federal election, social media was used largely as a one-way bulletin board and echo chamber for partisan talking points and videos. Absent, for the most part, was any genuine engagement or content with broad non-partisan appeal.

Unfortunately, what we see in Quebec and in the rest-of-Canada today suggests that parties will continue to use social media as a tactical tool to energize their base, raise funds and generate traditional media coverage. And so doing they will fail to capitalize on its true transformative potential: Its capacity to amplify messages a million-fold and to mobilize thousands.

But capitalizing on that potential would require acknowledging the world is not black and white and the bad guys can sometimes be good guys. It would mean saying goodbye to Pleasantville.


Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

This article first appeared in iPolitics under the title, “Infrastructure Minister has opportunity to strengthen federal-municipal relation.”

This Friday, as mayors and councilors from across Canada gather in Saskatoon for the opening of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) annual conference, some in attendance may note that it marks the 10th anniversary of Paul Martin’s New Deal for cities speech to the same conference, held that year in Hamilton. But it’s not likely.

While not quite up there with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or other oratory landmarks of the 20th century, Martin’s 2002 cities speech did more than get him fired from the Chrétien cabinet. It inspired hope among municipal politicians and urban advocates that Canada’s cities would finally be on the national agenda. Many even suggested that it ushered in a new era of federal-municipal partnership.

Yet, like much of Martin’s ambitious agenda, the New Deal for cities failed to live up to expectations.

Today, with the Harper government working on a new long-term infrastructure program to replace those set to expire—along with other federal transfers—in March 2014, it’s appropriate to ask what lessons the failure of Martin’s vision has for the current government.

To be fair to Paul Martin’s legacy, it is important to note that the New Deal delivered the gas tax transfer, which today pumps two billion dollars a year into city coffers for much-needed infrastructure repairs. But it took a Conservative government to make it permanent.

When it was introduced in 2005, it was as a five-year program, which did little to address the need for funding certainty required for long-term capital investments and planning. Its relatively short-term  nature reflected a high-degree of skittishness on the part of federal finance (and other) officials at the prospect of longer term transfers.

In hindsight, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that there was more sizzle than steak to the New Deal. Any significant federal overture to municipalities along the lines hinted at in his speech was likely to raise the hackles of provincial governments and be largely unworkable, both politically and  constitutionally.

His speech, 10 years later, is rife with generalities. Martin was cautious, refusing to get into specific commitments, unwilling to go all in and truly  embrace—to use one of his favourite words—a transformative relationship with municipal governments and risk being called offside—not by his boss but by provincial premiers.

Yet in its day, the speech resonated because it was the first time in many years that a senior federal politician—one who aspired to the top job, no less—reached out to city governments with so much passion and apparent understanding of the issues they faced.

But if he succeeded in seducing his audience with his vision of a new relationship, Paul Martin failed to consummate it. In part, this was because his tenure was cut short by the election of the Harper government in January 2006. More importantly, it was because there was no meaningful policy framework to support it.

And this brings us back to Friday in Saskatoon. This year, it’s federal infrastructure minister Denis Lebel who will deliver the keynote address to the municipal delegates. And while it’s a safe bet it won’t get him fired, his speech will be as important for Canada’s cities as Paul Martin’s.

Lebel is about one third of the way through a process he announced last November to put in place a long-term plan for infrastructure spending in this country. And while a long-term infrastructure deal lacks the excitement of a New Deal, it will likely set the terms and conditions for the federal-municipal
relationship for the next decade and beyond.

With Canada’s cities struggling under the weight of a $120-billion infrastructure deficit, and the expiry of a number of critical federal transfers to cities, including the flagship Building Canada Fund set for March 2014, municipal delegates will hanging on his every word looking for reassurances.

The minister should avoid Paul Martin’s mistakes and the urge to speak in generalities about “the vision thing”.  He should use his remarks to spell out in
detail how the rest of his process will unfold and, most importantly, its policy objective, which should be very simple: eliminating the infrastructure deficit for good–because that has to be the bottom line.

Anything short of a clear commitment to fixing the problem once and for all, will perpetuate the creation of programs that fail to get at the root causes of accelerating infrastructure decay in this country.

The major constant in a 10-year backdrop of shifting federal attitudes toward municipalities has been that policies in this area have largely been dictated by the political circumstances of the day and not on the basis of clear policy considerations and objectives.

The minister now has an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and break that cycle. As political oratory it won’t pack the same wallop as Paul Martin’s speech, but the outcome could be as transformative as the promise of the New Deal was bold.