What should the PM do?

Welcome back to the Senate "House of Horrors'. Just in time for Hallowe'en, the issue of the expenses 'scandal' has exploded into a media-frenzy which has captured the attention of the public like nothing else in recent years - thanks to the fumbled attempt to suspend the three Senators without pay. The three Senators have made impassioned  pleas for 'due process' and they seem to have succeeded in getting Canadians to put a hold on the suspension.

Following the latest 'wrinkles' revealed by Sen. Mike Duffy and his lawyer, Donald Bayne, and the release of emails revealing a second cheque being paid to Duffy by the Conservative Party to cover his legal fees, the issue has spun out of control. Sen. Pamela Wallin got some traction in her speech with her call for 'due process'. [The High School Confidential part starring Sen. Marjorie LeBreton and Sen. Carolyn Stewart-Olsen triggered more snickers than impact.] In her second appearance, she dropped that and honed in on the 'due process' issue to maximum effect. Sen. Patrick Brazeau revealed that he was offered a chance to reduce his punishment if he were to apologize. Interestingly enough, it served to open the door to a potential compromise. All of this at a very awkward and frustrating time for the Prime Minister and the Party on the eve of their Calgary Conference later this week.
So what should the Prime Minister do?
1. "If you've broken the eggs, you should make an omelette." Anthony Eden had it right, at least on that line. The Prime Minister should let it be known that he would embrace the Liberal amendment to hold off on the suspension and proceed immediately to a special Senate committee to hold hearings on it. In turn, Sen. Carrignan, the Conservative leader in the Senate could amend it to limit the time for the committee to meet and to vote based on the evidence before them. The three Senators would be invited to appear - as would Nigel Wright and others - to provide testimony, and answer questions. Yes, they should be allowed to have legal counsel, given the current RCMP investigation and the legal consequences. Then the Committee could vote its recommendations to the Senate as a whole on what, if any, should be the consequences for the Senators.
2. Won't this make the Tories look bad? There are no pure options. Yes, the Twitterverse would be filled with people saying that - but it's not likely that they're Tory voters anyway. Besides, now that new 'evidence' and allegations have emerged, it's worth clearing the air, and not letting it fester any further. It would provide a clear opportunity for the Prime Minister to say that he has listened to Canadians and has changed his mind. It's about restoring the issue that helped the Conservatives get into power - accountability. They need to look for the opportunity in this crisis, or as Homer Simpson put it, a 'crisi-tunity'.

3.  The PM should hold a news conference and clear the air about what he knew and when he knew it. Personally, I'm confident that he has nothing to
hide and can handle any questions from the Parliamentary Press Gallery that he is thrown. It would give him a chance to take care of, for example, his comments that he 'dismissed' Nigel Wright - rather than 'reluctantly' accepted his resignation. It may not be worth a hill of beans, but it's important to clear up the apparent contradiction. Also, watching him perform in the House this week (when he didn't hand it off to his Parliamentary Secretary), he was strong, clear and cool.
His sound bite of the week will probably be used again: "You're darn right I told him he should repay his expenses." The PM needs to do what he does best. Non-combative, strong, but 'more in sadness than with anger'.
4. Is the damage to the PM fatal? Given past history, and depending on whether or not there are any further damaging 'revelations', it is probably not permanently damaging. Despite all the heat developing around the issue, there still is no proof that the PM knew - either about the $90,000 Nigel Wright cheque or the $13,500 Party cheque to Sen. Duffy's lawyers. It's bruising, yes. And that's why it needs to be aired in public and then put to rest.
5. The PM needs to get back to his agenda - the economy...and fast. With news that the government is well ahead of its 2015 balanced budget commitment, combined with the huge EU free trade deal, this balloon has to be 'popped' and he needs the focus to return to his strong suit, the economy.
The Obama Administration's Struggles
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is trying to recover from fumbles on two fronts - one domestic - the disastrous rollout of 'Obamacare'' and the other -  the revelations of spying on Allies - including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Spanish and French governments. The key is to move quickly, and this, they did. The President held a news conference and used it as an opportunity to eat crow on the website roll-out and vow to get to the bottom of it.

The international 'bugging' embarrassment was handled by White House spokesman Jay Carney - who parsed his words carefully (allowing others to deliberately read into the remarks the silent admission that they had indeed bugged the Chancellor's telephone calls). Carney was also called upon to admit that - contrary to the President's previous assurances - some Americans would indeed lose their existing health insurance.
The decision to get out there and communicate is essential to credibility. Although they could have moved on a peremptory basis, instead of just reacting to the stories, nevertheless when the Administration did move, they were able to begin the process of regaining credibility.
Finally, the social media world was gripped with the battle of wits between the BBC's acerbic Jeremy Paxman and bad boy comedian Russell Brand. Paxman should have spent some time checking out some previous efforts by Brand to turn the tables on his interlocutors, as he did recently on MSNBC's Morning Joe. No matter what you think of his arguments, Brand seems to get a special joy out of throwing expectations to the wind and saying whatever he wants. I guess Katy Perry lost her fascination with it, but hey, it works!
Until next time....I'm going to focus on the rest of the World Series. Go Red Sox!


Will suspending Senators work?

The day after the impressive ceremony the Speech from the Throne, the Conservative Leader in the Senate, Senator Claude Carignan, announced, unceremoniously, his intention to introduce a motion suspending the three controversial Senators - Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau from the Senate. On top of that he said that they should be suspended without pay for 'using their privileges to abuse their power' and 'gross misconduct'. Sen. Carignan called them 'very severe sanctions'. That's for sure!
 It is clear that the Harper Government wants this issue to recede and does not want to have them sitting in 'the other place' during this session of Parliament.  Is it the right thing to do? We will leave it to legal, Parliamentary and other experts to pronounce on it from their perspectives. However, looking at it through a comnunications lens, let's see if it's going to get the government back in control of the agenda.
First, what options did the government have in the management of the issue? Given the messiness of the Duffy case - with the now infamous $90,000 cheque from Nigel Wright and the restrictions on public communications as a result of the ongoing RCMP investigations - the government has by now run out of options. Suspension is seen as the only viable step. The reason is simple. It stopped just being a Senate issue months ago. Now it's an issue for the Harper government.
Second, will it be perceived as fair? Already, talk radio is filled with voices saying that it's not fair. Senator Wallin has gone so far as to threaten legal action if the Senate goes ahead. Many claim that it is trying them without giving them a chance to defend themselves. Almost all institutions have provisions to suspend employees and officials for serious allegations of misconduct - financial or otherwise. The Senators have had months to present evidence in their cases and so far have not been able to dent public opinion running heavily against their expenditures and claims.  Sen. Mac Harb proved that resigning took him out of the spotlight. When the other three did not follow him, the spotlight focused even more heavily on them - and by extension - the Prime Minister and the brand of the government was obviously being damaged.
Should Senator Wallin be treated the same as Duffy and Brazeau? In an ideal world, perhaps not. She is repaying $100,000 and has strongly pushed back that she has followed the rules. There certainly appears not to be a 'smoking gun' in her case. Unfortunately for her, though, she is getting lumped into the 'soap opera' elements surrounding Senators Duffy and Brazeau.
Why not suspend them with pay? By banning them from access to their office, staff or resources of the Senate, it would be a huge penalty in and of itself. By cutting off their salaries and benefits, it appears to be over-kill. If they were fired, they would probably receive one year salary and benefits. For really angry Canadians, they'd say 'tough'. But for the middle ground who want to see fairness in process, they would probably be more inclined to support 'suspended with pay'.
So, what should happen in the Senate vote? In my view, once the motion has been tabled, an amendment should be proposed and seconded that would remove ' without pay' from the motion to suspend. [Ideally, the original motion should drop that provision.] In that way, it would be strong action, but not cross the line into unfairness - either in fact or in public perception.
Will it enable the Harper government to 'turn the channel' on the issue? The Throne Speech didn't change the channel (even as it vowed to unbundle them!)  The EU trade deal was important to the economic credibility of the government, but it can't match the Senate issues for audience interest, so it won't change the channel. The Senate suspension won't change it, but will give credibility to the Senate itself for taking action -- and by extension the government.

So going forward, what will it all mean? The first few days of Question Period - with the return of the Prime Minister - will be the roughest. If he can respond calmly and credibly, and then  turn the focus to the series of legislative initiatives and announcements previewed in the Throne Speech, he may be able to move the dial back in his government's direction. How Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau handle their attacks on the government will be critical to their ability to pin the government down on the issue. If they get over-heated or over-the-top in their attacks, it would be a gift to the Prime Minister, whose experience and ability to handle such attacks is formidable.
Until next time.....


5 Political Lessons from Blackberry

Welcome back!
Here we are with one of the most beautiful autumns in memory (at least for most parts of North America); with major league baseball playoffs filling our screens, all the football and hockey you could want, everything seems perfect. And yet...... Congress can't pass a budget bill, the U.S. debt ceiling deadline is days away...the iconic Canadian technology company, Blackberry, has collapsed, Ontario's government giving away $1 billion in penalties for canceling the gas plant contracts, and the ongoing saga of Senator Mike Duffy and his expenses. Is there anything that connects the dots in all these events?
Blackberry's Lessons for Politicians
At a time when one of Blackberry's rivals - Apple - has just knocked Coca Cola out of the slot for the No. 1 brand in the world (with Google no. 2).  That's gotta hurt - when you consider that Blackberry once 'owned' the smartphone world. On a personal note, as a longtime Blackberry customer, as with millions of others, I genuinely agonized over the new, but less-than-thrilling - Z10 before I decided to go 'over the side' to the Samsung Galaxy 4. The Globe and Mail ran a great piece recently that tells the story of what went wrong: Inside the Fall of Blackberry
However, in my view, many of those lessons are transferable to the world of politics:
5 Political Lessons from the Blackberry Debacle
1. Not listening to customers (voters)
The smartphone marketplace was changing dramatically and Blackberry appeared not to listen to their changing desires. Instead, they became overly reliant on their legacy products, while delaying the entry of a brand new operating system.  This week's Nova Scotia provincial election saw the incumbent NDP government, led by Darrell Dexter, dumped to third place behind the victorious Stephen McNeill-led Liberals (and losing his seat in the process). The Dexter government clearly disconnected with the voters - raising harmonized sales taxes and creating a massive deficit clearly led to the voters' disenchantment. The volatility of voters means that they will now usually give you only one chance to make good on your promises before they give governments the chop (B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who found life after certain death only by the questionable campaign of the Adrian Dix-led NDP.)  So all political parties better be truly listening - and delivering. Remember the eight words that get governments re-elected: "We did what we said we would do."
2. Loss of focus
While Blackberry wasted time delaying - and finally releasing - their Tablet (that tanked instantly in contrast to the game-changing iPad), they took their eye off the ball. The creative forces within the company were split - with some developing the Tablet and the others the new phone. The result was a loss of communication and coherent leadership. When a political party divides itself (Tea Party Republicans vs. mainstream Republicans, they tend to plunge in the polls (witness the fact that 62% of Americans blame the Republicans for the budget debacle).
Senator Mike Duffy's ongoing saga appears to only get worse with each new 'revelation'- causing a continued de-focus for the Harper government, who clearly want it all to just go away. If Senator Duffy remains in the Senate, it will continue as a de-focusing exercise for the Government as the House of Commons reconvenes next week.
3. Failure to adapt (while disappointing your base) The Republican Tea Party base has been temporarily satisfied in the budget battle. But even they will be disappointed when the inevitable compromises are made (stand by for that). Stephen Harper's Conservative government works hard at satisfying the party's base, (witness the battle over competition in the telecommunications sector), yet they need to bridge over and regain the support to the middle ground. For months now they have trailed Justin Trudeau and are only slightly ahead of Tom Mulcair and the NDP. (Look for the Throne Speech to hit the themes to reach 'families' and the 'middle class' as they try to regain traction with the voter).
4. Ignoring or discounting your competition Blackberry under-estimated the Apple brand promise and the resurgence of the less-expensive-but-very-cool Samsung product line. As the Republicans have been slamming Obama at every opportunity, after a while they sound like yesterday's news. People want to know what you're constructively going to do. Competition for voters is as much up in the air as in the business world. Loyalty to a particular company - or political party - has mostly gone by the wayside.
5. Failure to protect your brand
Your brand is your promise to your customer. Blackberry failed to deliver - and to deliver on time. They missed the window of opportunity. The brand of a political leader will usually diminish over time, so it's important to be innovative, to refreshen the brand and to keep moving forward. Stephen Harper is clearly facing that challenge - as is Barack Obama.
Then there's the sad legacy of the McGuinty Government in Ontario incurring over $1 billion in costs for the cancellation of the gas plants in order to save two or three ridings in the last provincial election. It's  an example of a complete failure to protect the brand of Dalton McGuinty and the Liberal Party. Even though it seemed to work as a short-term tactical (albeit a highly cynical move, one might reasonably deduce), it put paid to his declining brand and as more evidence emerges of the true cost and the political calculations around it, even his departure may not be enough to save the Kathleen Wynn-led Liberal government. The Premier apologized profusely but where's the action to somehow make up for it? When it gets that bad, apologies are not enough. Sometimes, though, one is saved by the quality of one's enemies (Clinton's 1995-96 government showdown with Newt Gingrich); (Harper vs. Stephane Dion in 2006); B.C. Premier Christy Clark vs. the NDP's Adrian Dix earlier this year). You just can't count on it happening.
So to sum it up, politicians - as well as companies - are gradually waking up to the reality that your brand is everything - understand it, refresh it, build it with tangible accomplishments - but ignore it at your peril.
Favorite Video of the Week
There's something about upending the conventional friendly news anchor-reporter banter that is particularly enjoyable to watch. In this clip, a local news anchor rakes a reporter over the coals for his lack of reporting skills: check this out and enjoy!
Until next time....