Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party Policy Convention. The agenda is on past gaffes not future plans.

Is Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the nadir of his time in office?

Spinning the web: How will the Prime Minister’s Office present gaffes, scandals and foibles before, during and after The Conservative Party Policy Convention? Is there a good news story lurking here somewhere?

by Tom Thorne

Tomorrow (Thursday 31 October 2013)  the Conservative Party starts its policy convention in Calgary. In Ottawa, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) usual intense work load for such an event has been further amplified and very likely frustrated by the  Senate of Canada proceedings and the further revelations of Senator Mike Duffy. This drama will not die.

It has been quite a week so far and it’s not over. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is slated to speak to the convention Friday evening. The PMO staffers must be trying at this very moment to figure out what to say in the Friday night speech. He has to make a speech. It is not an option not to speak or to not mention the Senate affair.

First of all the PMO’s credibility is now at a low spot. He looks like a tired waffler whose grasp on the truth is fleeting whether this is true or not. It’s the optics of the situation perhaps not the reality. Fixing things for the boss is now a herculean task from a media and public relations point of view. It must be difficult to get the PMO staff up for the job they need to do. Their morale must be very low.

One view the PMO could adopt would be to stress the positive like the European Trade Deal and attempt to downplay the Senate debacle as here today and gone tomorrow. the Trade Deal however needs lots of explanation and detailing and it may be unwise to launch it in the midst of so much negative energy.  

It was all a tragic sad moment in the PMO when the cheque(s) were cut for Senator Duffy.  However rumours continue that it is not only the PMO’s involvement but also Conservative Party officials helped by paying Duffy’s legal expenses. 

Duffy circulated the cancelled cheque for his legal costs! Ouch!  PMO and Prime Minister spin? That’s normal for the Party to do this type of action. That looks bad to Conservative Party donors who expect their money to be used for worthy causes. Not a good PR and media relations moment.

One spin could be that Senator Duffy has an ax to grind trying to stave off his own financial ruin. They could say that ignorance of the Senate spending rules, even when they change after the fact,  is no excuse despite all his perhaps self serving revelations. That might work. If Duffy is low in their overnight polling they may do something along these lines. However it would be a weak response bordering on a personal attack.

Then they could deepen the blame on former PMO Chief of Staff Nigel Wright. But that is hard because of the flip flopping that has already gone on from the Prime Minister has Wright  resigning through to the Prime Minister firing him. Narrowing in on Nigel Wright will offend many Conservatives because Wright has an enviable record raising funds for the Party. It is important to maintain the “base” support of the Party.

A statement from Nigel Wright might help. The PMO may be working on this one. However, if there is any sense that the Prime Minister or other Party officials are involved in any way other than what he said already, then Prime Minister is an obscurer of facts and perhaps even guilty of lying, not only to the public, but more importantly to Parliament. Nigel Wright’s lawyers probably will not allow this scenario because he is still in the RCMP headlights.

The new Chief of Staff, Ray Novak has his work cut out. And he is not clean either. He must have been deaf and dumb not to have known about the Duffy cheques as a senior PMO staffer under Nigel Wright. So his credibility in any media relations work will prompt questions especially in a press conference. Anything he tries may blow up in his face. However, silence is not an option. I am also predicting Ray Novak’s resignation after the Convention when he realizes that he cannot protect the Prime Minister.

Any number of PMO staff must have knowledge of the entire sad affair. It is hard to believe that Nigel Wright and now Ray Novak have not briefed other senior and middle range staff about the actual facts of this case so they can intelligently do their media relations work. Of course Ray Novak may have kept the entire operation in his own hands but that is unlikely given the workload before the Conservative Policy Convention.

The next 48 hours is crucial. If a vote before the Convention in the Senate suspends Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau then it looks like the Conservative majority in that place are following the Prime Minister’s orders. The orders of a tainted leader.  If there is a compromise to soften the suspension, then it looks less like a bullying exercise from the Prime Minister and they are in control of their own affairs. I suspect the latter scenario.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has painted himself into no-win corner. What arises from this debacle is his own poor judgement choosing Senators and PMO senior staff. His ability to choose good people are the optics of this sad event. He has lost control and may now show a side of himself that is very negative. This situation is basically the outcome of being too controlling and it maybe the nadir of his time as Prime Minister. 

© Copyright 2013, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved

Monday, 28 October 2013

Senator Mike Duffy rains on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Calgary Conservative Party Policy Convention. PMO looks for new spin on event.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper enthuses about the  
Conservative Policy Convention in Calgary this weekend. 

This week Conservatives gather in Calgary for their policy convention. Will the party be in one piece when they get to Calgary? More importantly, will they still be in one piece the day after the convention closes?

by Tom Thorne. Monday 28 October 2013

The current Senate of Canada hassles may cloud the Conservative Policy Convention slated for later this week. With the revelations by Senator Michael Duffy this afternoon in the Senate of Canada, his new allegations may very well remove Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Teflon coating as he is further implemented in the Nigel Wright PMO fiasco.  

It always seems that once political parties are in power for a time they begin to wear a bit thin. It happened to the Liberals and they are still picking up the pieces and now it may be the Conservative’s turn to implode. It couldn’t come at a worst time as Conservatives attempt to build their image this weekend in Calgary.

There has been a lot of talk from Prime Minister Stephen Harper of preserving the Conservative “base”. The Conservative base from my perspective consist of two main parts. A right wing that draws its roots from Preston Manning’s view of the world woven together with Stephen Harper’s ideas honed by his years with the Citizen’s Coalition. 

These people think that the less government, lower taxes and rugged individualism makes Canada better. Current Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Chief of Staff, Ray Novak probably falls into this category since he shares a Citizen’s Coalition background with his boss. Certainly Mr. Novak utilizing his PMO media spin department is energetically engineering how to take away the pay and allowances for Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau.

Then there are the so-called “Red Tories”. This group of Conservatives hold that the state has to intervene when injustice is done or when the greater good is in jeopardy. In short they are more social without straying too close to Liberal Party ideas. They also support the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the context of what’s happening now in the Senate.  Senators Hugh Segal and perhaps Donald Plett would be on this side of the party. 

Their plea for due process in the case of the current Senate expense problems means going against the wishes of the Prime Minister and the PMO’s press spinning. Senator Plett has served as President of the Conservative Party and is a Harper appointment so his views may not go down well with the PM. Hugh Segal, although a Conservative, was appointed by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin.

Together these two basic groups form the current Conservative Party and there is often an uneasy peace when one wing goes more the to right or the more socially conscious members of the party border on too much liberalism. In balance these constantly unstable elements of the Conservative Party enable it to stay near the middle of the Canadian political spectrum without actually being right on the centre. 

Sometimes the stresses of keeping the “base” or both bases on side creates a type of Conservative schizophrenia and the Party goes on a destructive bender akin to being off its meds. We may be teetering on that historical point at the moment. It’s happened before. The catalyst may well be the Conservative Members of the House of Commons and the Senate who are tired of being mere trained seals for the Prime Minister. There may be cracks in their solidarity although no fissures have appeared openly to this time.

Another interesting fact of Canadian political life is the current Harper government got into power by splitting ridings and by getting 38 percent of the vote across Canada. Conservatism in its present incarnation survives and forms majority governments by neatly splitting the New Democratic and Liberal Party vote. That means that 62 percent of Canadian who vote didn’t vote Conservative.

They have a modest mandate to be in power but not to swing too far to the right. Their changes to court sentencing, prison revision, the environment and long gun registries are all done with 38 percent of the popular vote. When the focus in Ottawa is on a scandal such as the Senate affair, the Conservatives will begin to erode their 38 percent if they don’t take care. That’s what Prime Minister Stephen Harper really means when he talks about the “base”.

The Senate of Canada now has a majority of Conservatives. Perhaps the promised Harper Senate Reforms can finally begin but that is unlikely given the turmoil in that place.  At the moment the numbers are: Conservatives 60, Liberals 33, Independent 6 (includes Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau) and there are six vacant seats for Prime Minister Harper to fill with more Conservatives. There are a total of 105 Senators. It is easy to vote against Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau and suspend them without pay and allowances with this majority but only if they play ball and observe their Whip.

As the Conservatives go to their policy convention this week what “base” of the Conservative Party is Prime Minister Stephen Harper appealing to or has he got left to appeal to? Has he got any room to back off from these Senate suspensions?  Can he justify his actions over the last few months in the PMO? 

Can he really wipe out former PMO Chief of Staff Nigel Wright’s gaffe with Senator Mike Duffy? After what happened this afternoon in the Senate with new fresh Duffy revelations there is little room for the Prime Minister and his PMO to move as they get ready for their Policy Convention and get the Senate to suspend Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau at the same time.  

How can the Prime Minister say that he doesn’t know what the former PMO Chief of Staff Nigel Wright was doing? How can his vindictive orders to the Senate now be implemented without fall out? The Conservative Party may need to fill that prescription for their meds this week if they are stay intact.

© Copyright 2013, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Stephen Harper's Prime Minister's Office now run by Ray Novak. Is it more pragmatism or will due process finally be allowed to rise in the Senate of Canada?

Ray Novak, PMO Chief of Staff. He's survived the PMO since 2008.

Prime Minister’s Office (PMO): Its political role is to be involved in everything a government does.

by Tom Thorne

Few can argue that political life in Canada is more complex than in the times of Sir John A. MacDonald when the Prime Minister had a private secretary to take care of his appointments, schedule and correspondence. The Prime Minister’s office was small and decisions were taken by the Cabinet and often after advice of the Privy Council.

In these simpler times the Prime Minister could be seen walking to work in Ottawa greeting, bantering and chatting with the public. The Prime Minister’s security was barely an issue.

Now of course the Government of Canada is a much more complex affair and the the bureaucracy that has grown up to run the country is controlled by the political arm of the Prime Minister. That organization is called the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The Parliament of Canada website describes the PMO in this away:

“The organizational structure of the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) has traditionally been hierarchical in its design. At the upper echelons of this hierarchy resides the small circle of individuals entrusted with running the PMO. Depending on the personal approach of the Prime Minister, the duties of managing, administrating and co-ordinating the activities of the PMO might belong to the Principal Secretary, the Chief of Staff, or another key advisor.
The head of the PMO is granted virtually uninhibited access to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers. He or she oversees the activities of the Prime Minister’s staff, and can also serve as an important political adviser. In addition, the head of the PMO has the duty of liaising with the Privy Council Office (PCO), and attends the weekly meetings of the PCO’s senior staff as the representative of the PMO.
The functions served by the PMO, itself, have greatly evolved over time. In the ministries which followed Confederation, the Prime Minister’s secretaries mainly fulfilled basic service roles, such as responding to routine correspondence. In more recent times, with the institutionalization of the PMO, the raison d’ĂȘtre of the PMO and its staff has expanded to include a wider variety of tasks, including the provision of policy advice, information gathering, communications, planning, and strategizing.” 
Although paid for by the public purse, through the Treasury Board, the current staff of the PMO work  outside of the guidelines of normal government employees. They are not subject to the staffing guidelines, controls or protection of the Public Service Commission. As a result they can be asked to work 24/7 and easily fired if they don’t measure up or make embarrassing mistakes.  
Nigel Wright  who was serving as a Chief of Staff in the Harper PMO was summarily dispatched after embarrassing Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he gave $90,000 of his own money to bail out Senator Duffy’s expense problems. If you work in the PMO you accept that you work there at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.
This situation of course creates a loyal partisan group whose only loyalty is to the Prime Minister. Their loyalty to anything greater than the Prime Minister can create a climate of  doing semi legal things where political considerations can sometimes shade truth and what is right and just. This attitude may very well be playing out in the Senate of Canada as they debate whether to take away senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau’s pay and allowances without due process. Certainly this is an order of the Prime Minister and of course the PMO will spin this view as is their duty as they see it.
This rarified concentration of energetic loyal political power is how Nigel Wright can make judgements like he did for Senator Mike Duffy. The role of Principal Secretary of Chief of Staff is 100 percent political expediency to protect the boss, who of course is the Prime Minister.
It can also, in the wrong hands, create an ex cathedra type of relationship with other government employees, members of Parliament in the Commons or the Senate of Canada. When the Chief of Staff talks to you and says or hints something that is the Prime Minister talking. So today in the Nigel Wright Senator Duffy experience what Nigel Wright did is perceived to have the blessing of the Prime Minister. Wright is the arm of the Prime Minister’s power and authority.
Worst yet, when the Prime Minister says he knew nothing of this situation is he really saying he could not properly manage his political implementor. When would Nigel Wright tell the Prime Minister about the $90,000? Never or at some point?  Then there is a serious breech when the Chief of Staff takes it upon himself to act without clearing it with the boss.
If this is so, then Stephen Harper needs to get control of his PMO. Perhaps the new Chief of Staff, Raymond Novak has the savvy to know this. After all he has survived in the rarified PMO air since 2008 as Principal Secretary. Perhaps Raymond Novak knows and understands the limits of his authority.

© Copyright 2013, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Canadian Senate explores Star Chamber methods to save Prime Minister Stephen Harper's reputation.

Senators Brazeau, Wallin and Duffy.

Canadian democracy in jeopardy. First looks at the Stephen Harper Star Chamber in action.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper likes control. He likes it so much that he could be on the verge of stressing our democratic institutions and the basic right to be innocent until proven guilty. 

His actions to kick senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau out of the Conservative Caucus may show a latent disregard for due legal process but when he orders Senate leader Marjory LeBreton to introduce sanctions against Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau to stop their pay and allowances that act shows a mean disregard for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Parliament and Senate of Canada are not immune from the Charter’s provisions.

The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) is the operational focus of the Harper government. They operate as a political arm. The Conservative Caucus in the House of Commons and the Senate of Canada is now putty in the hands of the Prime Minister and his PMO. There is no thought allowed except PMO Think.  PMO Think is Harper Think. All decisions lead to the PMO. Their power is the arm of the Prime Minister.

Canadian democracy is in jeopardy when it is run by unelected PMO officials who work trying to keep their fingers in every pie of the government. They are the Prime Minister’s arm to get his decisions implemented.  That includes whipping the Conservative majority in the Commons and in the Senate to do the Prime Minister's bidding. Members of Parliament and Senators can be summoned and threatened by the PMO and always in the name of the Prime Minister.

The trouble is they screw up a lot of the time. Former PMO chief of staff, Nigel Wright, decided to bail out Senator Duffy with $90,000 his own money. Then taking the fall the Prime Minister says that he does not know anything about this deal. He claims he learned about when Canadians did. That defies credibility. Nigel Wright is gone simply because he got caught and embarrassed the Prime Minister.

Duffy says he was told to keep this a secret and also to say he has arranged a loan with his bank. And although the Prime Minister ordered Duffy to pay back the expenses he claims that after a meeting with a “few” PMO people he knew nothing of the Nigel Wright $90,000 arrangement. If that is true then Nigel Wright had been given too much authority by the Prime Minister if he thought he could give Duffy $90,000 of his own money and keep the prime Minister out of that loop.

And when this deal when south the Prime Minister dumped Nigel Wright and now is sweeping the Senate of anyone with any problems to “protect the base”. The base in question are right wing ideologues who support the Harper notions of less government and an environmental hands off policies.

The current debate in the Senate is seriously trying to suspend three appointed Harper senators and take away their pay and allowances because they had some difficulties with expenses. In the cases of Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy they have paid back the money that they allegedly booked as unallowable expenses. And the Senate expense rules changed and both Duffy and Wallin retroactively became liable for breaking rules that didn’t exist or were unclear. 

Star Chamber Justice usually means that the evidence is altered unilaterally to suit the prosecution. That’s what happened here. In addition, the RCMP has had these files all summer and have not brought any charges against Duffy and Wallin. So why the haste? Are both Senators persona non grata because they crossed or embarrassed Stephen Harper or worse yet the PMO operatives?

None of this makes any difference to Prime Minister Harper. They have to go. The fact that he appointed Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau is clearly forgotten. If these people are so bad it calls into question the PM’s ability to choose good senators and for that matter PMO chiefs of staff who don’t do dumb things like use their own money to bail out Senators in trouble. Obviously there was an attempt to cover up the $90,000 and it flopped.

Parliamentary legal expert opinion stated today that the removal of Duffy, Wallin or Brazeau’s pay and allowances is not the prevue of the Prime Minister, the PMO, The Senate or The House of Commons. If the Senate suspends and removes their pay and allowances they will be open to a legal challenge. So the suspension of pay will fuel the scandal not put it out. It will also show clearly that Harper control is also not working.

Perhaps when the Conservatives have their Convention this week someone will have the intestinal fortitude to question Stephen Harper on his clumsy record with his PMO and his appointments to the Senate and now the Supreme Court. 

And late breaking news: Brazeau approached by Senator Claude Carignon, the person sponsoring this legislation to take away salary and benefits from Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, for a “lessor punishment” for Brazeau if he apologizes. This development is really like the Star Chamber. Who is Senator Claude Carignon to offer anything to another senator? Why does he think he has the authority to do this? Has Prime Minister Stephen Harper authorized this change?  I can’t wait for Question Period.

© Copyright, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Perimeter Institute and TVOntario run week long conference to discuss education in 2030. The first task is to change how education is administered.

Education in 2000 as seen in 1910: Is this the bureaucratic vision we
can expect by educational authorities as we move to 2030?

The Future of Education: Online learning and content could trump the bureaucratization of the school system. 

By Tom Thorne

This week a conference about education, and where it is headed by 2030, is taking place at the Perimeter Institute at the University of Waterloo. Issues from this event are covered each evening by TVOntario’s admirable daily public affairs TV program The Agenda and live-streamed on the web at

My first take on this topic is that schools with walls will likely be passĂ© or waning by 2030. Teachers will have an entirely new role as student facilitators and generators of educational media content. They may very well be online rather than live in the classroom. Constant change will not allow for curricula to develop in the way it is presented today by Canadian provincial Ministries of Education. 

Provincial curricula or state standardized testing and the issuance of diploma standards may go the way of the dodo. However, educational bureaucracies have a lot to lose, so we are in for resistance to change by some teachers but mainly by the bureaucracies of local boards of education. Bureaucrats oppose anything that smacks of a lack of rigidity. The stresses on their systems will be seen as an anathema to the status quo. Expect them to drag their feet.

The current top down industrial model of one size fits all centralized Ministry of Education curricula will give way, despite itself, to a much more open system where curricula will be designed by the new breed of entrepreneurial teachers and their learners. It’s the nature of information societies to fragment large bureaucratic structures. 

Educational bureaucracies trying to control the school system with centralized curricula will be experience a fragmentation and constant frustration of their plans. Teachers are already feeling the stresses and conflicts built into the existing system by its administrative style.  The administrative anchor will be funding models to stem constant change and pressures brought by teachers who deal daily with classes where special needs trumps the needs of most of the class.

Teacher’s colleges will become more irrelevant than they are today because teaching education will also be online undergoing constant change and innovation. Web based teacher education will be practical, and immediately useful for students. Much is happening already. Resourceful teachers can find endless materials to engage their students and link them as a class through educational social media that mirrors Facebook and Twitter and makes learning fun and engaging.

For many who are devoted to the current hidebound system of public education this change will be seen as chaotic descent into a new Dark Age. Imagine a system that is no longer a bureaucracy and a place where steps and increments to education are replaced by individually designed interest modules cost effectively assembled for and by students and their teacher facilitators. Maybe this is the way for special needs to be implemented cost effectively.

Grades from Kindergarten to grade 12 will be erased replaced with self evaluation and learning at your own pace will become the norm. The basic job of primary panel teachers will be a return to the 18th Century elementary education topics. Its main function will be to ensure that students can read, write, research, do basic sums and cope with constant change. That too can be done in an engaging way by online educational media.

The greater part of the new educational environment will be on line. In 17 years time (2030) the integrated computer networks will be using first nano techniques and eventually quantum physics to create flexible hardware-software fusions.  This level of cyber techniques will handle, store and dispense most of human knowledge and reprogram themselves as needed. The system will be operated by artificial intelligence that can learn and construct its own hardware and software. The big issue will be maintaining human control over these artificial minds. Hopefully, this need will not become another educational or government bureaucracy.

The search engines will also learn the needs and interests of the learner and constantly present options, ideas and creative ways to think about problems and opportunities.  All new information coming onto the new internet or SUPERNET will be automatically sent to the attention of learners or researchers of that topic. The big problem will be how to manage and organize mega amounts of information and content. School will at last have no walls in fact the concept of school may well give way to content generation, constant lifelong learning and and sifting for decision making.

The internet at this superstage will be the school or an educational repository of data and information turning into usable knowledge and that trend is clearly now already in development and in may cases happening. The only part of this equation not in place currently is intelligent software that can relevantly learn and assemble endless data, information into knowledge cores that constantly change and update and do so in a relevant  and comprehensible way while retaining a trackable history of sources. Today there is a large volume of data and information but knowledge can still be hard to generate from the information glut. 

Education and learning in 2030 will be automated and the important point is how it will be controlled, accessed and dispensed to and by educators and learners. There will be an attempt to create bureaucratic controls because funding will always be an issue. Much of the change to education will need a new mindset that is entrepreneurial and flexible. Sadly this has never been a hallmark of public education which is now a politically correct bureaucracy that is timid and without vision.

© Copyright 2013, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved