Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Explaining Well-Meaning Failure -- NB Second Language Training Edition

The news that only 32 people took advantage of the government’s $1Million programme to provide free second language training to unemployed New Brunswickers last year has been met with surprise from some quarters.

In particular, the minister responsible seemed disappointed, stating “You can’t just stay there and complain that you can’t get a job opportunity because you don’t know the second language but you are not doing anything about it.”

Let me say at the outset that, while Don and I famously have our differences, I think his support for bilingualism is heartfelt, sincere, and admirable.  This is not a hit piece.

But his statement confirms what the numbers suggest – Don doesn’t understand, on a human level, what the reality is for unemployed people.  Or for Anglophones who have not mastered a second language.

Often, our second language training in New Brunswick is terrible.  And I think it is because we design programmes for their symbolic value rather than their educational value.  We ask “Will this show we support bilingualism?” rather than “Will this make more actual people bilingual?”.  And we should be mature enough to break that bad habit, because bilingualism is here to stay.  We have to stop fighting the ghosts of the 1960s.

To understand the failure of this program, we have to understand one fundamental thing about what it is to be unemployed.  If you want to know what path an unemployed adult will choose, first ask the question “What will most quickly get this person into a job?”

For example, if I offered free philosophy degree courses to unemployed New Brunswickers, there would be low take up.  Even though statistically people with arts degrees, even in Philosophy, earn more than those with no degree at all, it would be a tough sell.  It takes four years to learn enough philosophy to get a degree, and even then the skills are general – there is no automatic job afterwards.  Some doors open, but that is the most that can be said with certainty.

But isn’t that also true, for most, of second language training.

If your skills in French are minimal today, learning a second language is not a quick solution to needing a job.  Because you are not three, six or even twelve months away from speaking French at a level that opens up any jobs.  (I had access to Arabic language training for six months last year.  Do you think I will be applying for any jobs classified Arabic-essential?)  Basically, if you lack the ability to have a basic conversation today, you are years from the point where you will learn French well enough that you can actually use your new French skills to apply for jobs that require French.

It is a great thing, of course, to be able to have basic conversations in Caraquet in French.  But that doesn’t get you hired.

And many unemployed New Brunswickers do not have even minimal French to start with.  (Remember that before Intensive French was introduced in 2008, 98% of non-immersion graduates lacked the ability to use even one sentence spontaneously, and fewer than 10% of graduates completed Immersion).  

Also, that is a number of years needed for the average learner.  Statistically, there would be a higher number of people who struggle to learn languages among the unemployed than there are among the general population.  (There most certainly are high-skill unemployed here, but it is also true that a higher percentage of unemployed adults report having struggled in school than the percentage of employed adults).  That means that many unemployed New Brunswickers likely doubt that, even with time and effort, they will master a second language well enough to make it a certified, employment-related skill.  If you struggle with first language skills, how plausible is it that you will master a second before your EI runs out ( or social assistance rules force you to take the first job available).

So if we understand that unemployed people desperately need jobs because they have kids and mortgages and basic desires to work, and second language training takes years to help an unemployed person get a job, and the government doesn’t help with living expenses while you get “free” training -- why are we surprised that the programme tanked?

For most adult learners, that is the calculation that adult responsibilities force upon us.  The question we ask when deciding whether or not to learn French is not “Would I like to know French?”.  The question is “what professional benefit does that bestow compared to other things I could do with the same time and effort?”

If you are a unilingual worker at a private sector company, you could learn French in 2 to 3 years.  You could also get an MBA and qualify for jobs that don’t require French and pay more.  What will you do?

If you are a Grade 12 student who wants to be a doctor or scientist, you could take Advanced Math in French.  But if you know you go a bit slower in your second language, and you’ll be competing in university for scholarships and med school spots, don’t you have to choose mastering the Math over polishing your French?

If you’re on social assistance and you left school in Grade 10, should you do your high school equivalency first, or learn French?

See the problem?

Many francophones underestimate the struggle for Anglophones to learn French, just as Anglophones underestimate the risk of assimilation.  One group has the second language so present in their lives they need to create spaces away from it, the other struggles to find places to use it and learn it informally.  Neither completely gets the other, which I think is why we see Don Arsenault defaulting to blaming people without jobs for not jumping all over the chance to take a French course instead of asking questions about what these people need.

If we are serious about bilingualism, we wouldn’t do it the way Minister Arsenault did it.  Instead we would:

1.       Fund universities and colleges to offer co-curricular training in French for free while students are already forgoing income to learn.  Make these opportunities free and available outside the programme.


2.       Offer French training when it fits an employment plan, but commit to assist learners with student aid and income support to pursue the programme for the time it takes to gain actual certification.


3.       Don’t limit programmes to those with the urgency of being unemployed.  The people who will actually learn French are likely those who have the comfort of a paycheque and will take the course for the long-term benefit.  Waiting until someone is unemployed to offer free French training is like waiting until someone is having a heart attack to offer them a free gym membership.


4.       Of course, the best time to help as many people acquire a base in French is when they are young and already free to go to school all day.  If starting immersion in Grade 1 is leading to 10% who learn a lot of French and 90% who learn almost none, see if delaying the entry point will allow a broader cross-section of people to graduate knowing enough French that they can quickly get professional certification.  Like, maybe starting in Grade 3 would lead to higher immersion enrollment …..wait, what?....someone did that?  Well, I am sure that the government would build off that, since they want more bilingual people.  That’s here to stay!


In all seriousness, bilingualism is not helped if it is simply a way to create an Anglophone elite and it is not available to all in programmes that match reality.  Offering programmes symbolically without asking how learners actually can learn is a waste of time and money.

And blaming unemployed people for government’s failure to act strategically is not good.  Minister, a little more thought and a little less lecturing would be welcome.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

You Can Say It's A New Normal. I Won't.

A last thought before I swear off political talk for my vacation. I see some friends today recasting what we saw as a rejection of "elites", a cry for "change" or about "forgotten voters". I understand that urge. There are swaths of America that are hurting, and many corporations who moved for profit and cared little for communities left behind have put the system at risk.

But before we all recast this as some cry for change and inclusion, let's remember that we should not normalize that which is cruel, harsh and wrong. To speak of this as only some anti-establishment retaking of government is silly -- as if there were no Hillary supporters in her diverse coalition who haven't known poverty, pain or racism. Surely the Khan family and Trayvon Martin's parents are not to be recast as elites, or blind sheep to the status quo.  And some Trump voters seem to have no tale of woe harsher than having "Happy Holidays" on their Starbucks cup.

No, we can't sanitize this, normalize it, squeeze it into some narrative of change. People didn't just cry for change, they chose THIS change. They saw a man mock a disabled reporter with their own eyes, and were willing to accept it. They heard a man say judges of Mexican origin were biased, they heard him attack a Gold Star family in language that good people call indecent and mock soldiers who get captured, and they watched him run on a platform that involved using his office to lock up his opponent. These should be disqualifying.  People chose to make them acceptable. 

Bruce Springsteen once wrote that a flag stands for what we will do, and what we won't. And America just erased a lot of what used to be "what they won't do". Those rules of decency and humanity mattered. And rejecting them can't just be cast as a vote for "change". 

And they had so little respect for government that they granted a dangerous learning curve to a man who couldn't explain what NATO was or name a constitutional amendment without coaching. That's not snobbery -- these are understandable omissions in many people, but not for a man who applies for a job like President. 

Don't blame the media. Don't blame WikiLeaks. And don't even blame Clinton. Worse campaigns have won. (Trump's was shambolic). 

Trump's basic ignorance of policy and meanness of spirit were clear for anyone who wanted to see them. No one kept it hidden. And indeed, polls show that when his grotesqueness was active, he fell. If he shut up for three days, people forgot. And if so, they wanted to forget. They wanted something he was selling. 

None of this is a call to delegitimize a fair vote. He won. His voters should be engaged as citizens and not mocked or dismissed. But deep down inside, people knew he was too ignorant, too unstable, and too mean for the job. And they chose not just change, but his kind of change. That means there is something ugly they wanted, on some level. And I beg you, don't intellectually normalize things that should remain deviant. That's how stable countries fall down rabbit holes, and you can now see a rabbit hole from here. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Higgs Wins -- What It Means, and Free Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Liberal Team, both of them.

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

Now, three unsolicited tips for Liberals

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

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

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

Saturday, October 22, 2016

PC Leadership -- What'll Happen and Why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 3, 2016

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

So after all that, what do we know?

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

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

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


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

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

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

ISSUE 2: Sticking with EFI

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

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

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

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


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

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

ISSUE 4: Teacher Support

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

ISSUE 5: Impact on English Literacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Beyond Strategy: The Moral Case To Stop Trump

I've never cared much for the phrase “strategic voting”. It suggests a dichotomy that doesn't really exist. There are times when voting for the candidate closest to your views who can win is a principled decision. And there are times when withholding your vote from the leading candidate and giving it to a long shot is perfectly good strategy. 

My friend in Alberta who was a lifelong Liberal, but voted for the NDP in their last provincial election was strategic, in that the Notley surge meant that in his riding the NDP could win. But it was also principled, in that he believed that ending one-party rule would lead to better, more accountable governance in the long-term.

By the same token, I met Green voters in the provincial election in ridings where they had no hope who had thought strategically of the need to build a party long-term that was unequivocally against development in a number of areas. The fact that I didn't agree with them didn't change the fact that, long-term, the money and credibility that came with votes would help their party long-term and was also a strategic choice. 

Today, many US progressives are wrestling with this kind of choice, as the “Bernie-or-Bust” wing of the Sanders movement is resisting calls from their peers and their own candidate to support Hillary Clinton to stop Donald Trump.

I'm not going to engage in any Sarah Silverman-like cries of “ridiculous” here. There are genuine frustrations among Democrats, like this one…

But I'm prepared to grant that not every Democrat difference is as trivial as the taste of colas, and not every Republican will be as awful as self-immolation. As I've argued before, the power to withhold your vote is important. If parties just want to win elections, the Democrats could nominate Jeb Bush, because if all Dems supported him, he'd surely steal enough GOP votes from Trump to win. But in the long-term, we'd all be signing up for a long line of conservative presidents and rewarding Republicans for moving to the crazy right. So the power to say “no” to your own party is meaningful. 

Me, I'd be in the middle of the Democratic fight. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was beautiful to watch, and built a movement I didn't know America had in her. I do believe that it will be necessary to halt the movement of jobs and capital with impunity, to ensure fair taxation, and have a social safety net and public services that provide a more equal society than we have now. (I even believe that Trump’s destructive campaign is partly the result of thirty years of business leaders being willing to create a lost underclass of voters, but that's another thing).

Yet, while it isn't trendy to say it, I respect and like Hillary Clinton. I see the flaws.  She is a plodding campaigner and sometimes is too quick to see politics as the art of the possible without testing the limits of what can be done (like on gay marriage).  I also think that she has been the victim of 25 years of Republican scandals that throw endless excrement without ever really coming out with proof or a coherent accusation of wrongdoing. (Quick, tell me exactly what they are accusing Hillary of in Benghazi, without falling into a word salad of labels). In a world of tweeted policy and empty celebrity, I have some patience for policy wonks with five point plans. They matter. And those who knock her compromises in the 1990s are often ignorant of the realities of what it took to end the Reagan/Bush era with the whiter, more conservative electorate that existed then. 

I would say this about so-called strategic voting….it’s fine to withhold your vote if you believe (a) the difference between the leading candidates is not as important as (b) the future benefit of withholding your vote, through either building another option or influencing an existing one. I also suggest looking at this unromantically – a candidate who will reluctantly do what you want often produces the same result as someone who passionately does what you want.

There are big differences between Bernie and Hillary. She would pursue a more hawkish foreign policy, which has sometimes gone wrong (Libya, Iraq). She is less skeptical of free trade. She is more concerned with deficits and has more connections to Wall Street that may influence her. (Bernie has practically no oligarchs with him that he could lose). 

There are similarities, too. Both will protect Obamacare. Both will retain President Obama’s protections for undocumented immigrants and their kids. Both will appoint Supreme Court judges who will defend personal liberty, choice, affirmative action, and don't see unlimited money in politics as a right. 

This is no small thing – both are basically decent on issues of race, religion and inclusion. Compared to Trump, they are saintly. 

Which leads me to discuss the alternative. I sometimes hear debates over whether Nader voters “cost” Al Gore the election. To which I would say this –it is legitimate to withhold your vote from the leading candidates. It isn't legitimate to deny that your choice has consequences as much as voting for one of them does. 

Al Gore lost Florida by 537 votes. Ralph Nader got over 90,000. It is true that not every Nader vote would have gone to Gore as a second choice. It is true, by studies and Nader’s own admissions, that 60% would have (many would have not voted or voted for Bush). But even allocating those votes 60-40 flips Florida and, thus, the election.   

Some people argue that voting for Nader over Gore doesn't mean you own the result because (a) Gore could have been a better campaigner (b) Gore could have won his home state and carried the day (c) Gore also got screwed over by a flawed ballot design in Broward County. 

These arguments are actually ridiculous. First, just because other things could change the result doesn't absolve us from our own actions when, but for those actions, the result would be avoided. If I drive drunk and hit you with my car, it doesn't absolve me of fault to argue that you forgot your lunch at home and thus arrived at the crosswalk later instead of missing me altogether. Maybe Al Gore could have done other things better and changed other factors….but he also could have won with all those flaws had voters who preferred him to Bush chose him over Nader. If we buy those dumb arguments Nader voters use, then it would also follow that Bush voters in Florida aren't responsible for Bush, because if Gore had won Tennessee their votes wouldn't have mattered either. 

Bottom line – I will defend your right to withhold your vote from the Democrat if you sincerely believe that the benefits outweigh the risks of those missing votes electing the Republican. I won't defend your right to deny that votes have consequences, because that's what comes with getting to vote like a grownup. You're allowed to argue that the benefits of punishing Hillary are worth the statistical risk of President Trump. You aren't allowed to deny that you alter the statistical risk.  You have to calculate that too. That's not fear-mongering…it’s simply part of the burden of voting. 

I further accept the words of Sanders and his key campaign people that the emails stolen from the DNC show a clear bias toward Clinton but show no fraudulent actions that change the fact that slightly more voters chose Hillary Clinton (although Bernie’s campaign was far better). 

All this is to say that I understand the differences are important and worth pushing. In the end, I still tend to believe the moral and strategic choice is to vote for Hillary Clinton.  I have three reasons. 

1. If there was a more mainstream Republican, like McCain or Romney, I could entertain objections more easily. Trump is genuinely dangerous – in his willingness to apply religious tests to government programs, to make Muslims register with their government, in his vague promises to restore law and order by any means necessary, in his clear promises to place American in a police siege to round up illegal immigrants, in the casual cruelty with which he treats people who disagree with him, in his praise of dictators even when given examples of murderous behaviour, in his debt to Russian financiers and praise of Putin, and in his unstable temperament and the strange, narcissistic speeches he gives rambling through snarling at his enemies and lauding his own glory. No sensible person can equate Hillary or Bernie (or even Mitt Romney) to Trump. 

2. There are minimal upsides to pursuing Bernie’s platform with a President Trump.  I can see how organizing in midterm elections and taking direct action can push Clinton to sign progressive bills if they are passed. If you can see how anything gets easier with a Trump presidency and three Trump appointees on the Supreme Court, you see something I don't. 

3. Hillary stops the repeal of ObamaCare health benefits and the mass deportation of 11 million people. Many Bernie or Busters are too privileged too be affected by this (I would be too), but I do believe that there is a strong moral case that compassion requires us to weigh the pain caused to millions of less fortunate people by those two Trump actions alone against any benefit to be gained by withholding votes from Hillary (especially when you can threaten to challenge her in the 2020 primaries from the left). 

So that's my case for voting Hillary. It may be strategic, but it is also based on values and the moral imperatives before the electorate. Like most votes, it is strategic and moral.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Hillary's goals, 100 hours from now.

Events have overtaken this a bit, of course. The theft and leaking of DNC emails has created some real tension about how Bernie Sanders’ team will act. I'm going to leave that mostly alone, because (a) it goes without saying that Team Clinton needs to bring the party together and (b) it's too early to say how this will play out. Let's see how the Monday night schedule –fortuitously built around people the Sandernistas either love (Warren, Bernie) or respect (the First Lady). It's also unclear how much the Russian angle will play out here – Trump’s fawning love for Putin and financial debts to Russian financiers are getting picked up by the media and this may yet be a thing. 

But going into the convention, there are three goals that will be key for Hillary Clinton. And believe it or not, they don't involve tearing Donald Trump a new one. 

1. Tell your candidate’s story. I was at the 1992 DNC convention.  Bill Clinton came in to that week third behind Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush. When he and Al Gore left New York, he was ten points up and Perot was gone. A lot was due to the brilliant job people did telling his story –growing up in a poor, single-family home in Hope, Arkansas and becoming a Rhodes Scholar and governor. It was wrapped up in a great biographical video that ended with Bill intoning “I still believe in a place called Hope.”  Hillary is now more familiar than Bill was in 92, but she isn't beyond reintroducing. She is a guarded person who has been vilified by Republicans for years, and does not easily speak emotionally. Many younger Sanders people didn't know the days when she was the left-wing, progressive bogeyman the neocons hated, and her work on human rights, anti-war causes and children’s law will be news to them. More importantly, they need to show what makes Hillary Clinton tick.

2. Make substance matter. One critique I have on the Clinton campaign is that they are still acting like the Center can be defined by what it isn't –not Trump, not radical change –than what it actually is. By the end of the week, there needs to be some clear things that President Clinton is for, not just things they won't let President Trump do. This is doubly important because Trump is a know-nothing on policy. It has surprised me that they haven't made him respond and react to policy debates (where he can't match Clinton) instead of value challenges (where he has some cunning and strength she lacks). There are lots of ideas more compelling than a wall….but the fact I can't name what her signature policy is suggests a problem for the “substance” candidate. 

3. Pick your narrative on Trump. One reason why Trump has had some Loki-like qualities this campaign is because he makes so many crazy statements. Many candidates screw up once, and then let the media chew on that topic for a week before something more interesting comes along. Trump throws crazy into the conversation like chum in the water, and often no one thing sticks. Having 16 opponents in the GOP primary kept there from being one devastating critique. Trump is good (not as good as the media thinks, but good) in picking one tiny flaw in his opponents and sticking to it, while goading his opponents into attacking him through a laundry list of weirdness. Clinton needs to choose from the pu-pu platter of crazy and pick a narrative on Trump. We will know by the speakers’ list if they have managed it. In essence, they need to decide if Trump is dangerous because things aren't so bad and he is unstable, or if things are bad but Clinton’s stability is the right antidote. Getting caught between the two may be fatal. 

Again, there are still unknowns here. But the basic goals remain the same. Trump’s bounce this week is not worrisome because he can't be reined in – ask Presidents Mondale, Dukakis, Kerry and Romney what the value is of getting a lead before the incumbent party replies – but he is hitting numbers that show that the universe of people willing to consider him is high enough to win. He set a narrative –the world is falling apart, and he is change and Clinton is the same old insider politics. This is the best chance the Democrats will have to fix a narrative of the campaign that draws a distinction that favours their candidate.