Summer election chase starts with NDP in lead

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OTTAWA – And they’re off! Again.

The House of Commons rose for the summer recess on Friday, signalling the end of the 41st Parliament and the start of a summer-long steeplechase that will culminate with the official federal election call and a sprint to the Oct. 19 national vote.

The race for the keys to 24 Sussex Drive began, of course, many months ago — if indeed it ever ended after the May 2011 election that finally gave Prime Minister Stephen Harper his majority Conservative government.

With exactly four months to go until e-day, the three main parties — Conservatives, NDP and Liberals — scatter from Ottawa in a field that has taken on a new complexion.

And that brings its own new dynamic for how the unfolding race is covered.

A series of public opinion polls beginning in mid-May have now coalesced to put the New Democrats and Tom Mulcair at the front of the pack, with Harper’s Conservatives slowly losing ground in second place and Justin Trudeau’s previously buoyant Liberals huffing along in third.

“It’s the (polling) consistency that gets the attention of the chattering classes and the media,” pollster Donna Dasko, a former senior vice-president at Environics, said in an interview.

Recent national polls have put NDP support as high as 36 per cent and the Liberals as low as 23 per cent, with the Tories somewhere in between — a virtual mirror-image reversal of public opinion samples from as late as March of this year.

The new dynamic was vividly illustrated by the coverage of two major speeches in the last week of the parliamentary sitting.

Mulcair’s economic speech on Toronto’s Bay Street on Tuesday was widely portrayed in the media as a “government-in-waiting” play to salve any lingering concerns of the financial establishment.

Trudeau, meanwhile, presented a big democratic reform package that was framed as a “desperate” campaign “re-set” due to slipping poll numbers.

Swap Mulcair and Trudeau’s positions in the public opinion surveys — as they were at the end of March — and the motivations and impact of the same two speeches this week might have been framed entirely differently.

“I always like to see contrarian analysis but you don’t tend to see that,” said Dasko. “Analyses go in waves — and the new wave is that Tom Mulcair is doing well and Trudeau is doing badly and Harper is doing badly.”

Those passing waves create interest in politics, says Dasko, which is a positive thing, but they’re not predictive. She cites the collapse of support for Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow last summer, a polling reverse that could not be linked to any particular event.

Kelly Toughill, director of the school of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, said that looking at the “horse race” rather than candidates’ ideas has become a journalistic tradition.

“The underlying issue is whether the competitiveness of the race —and focusing on the potential outcome — is actually influencing our ability to help people get the information they need to make that decision,” she said.

Context is important, said Toughill, and reporting survey results is newsworthy, but polling is also “one of the cheap and easy ways” for reporters to pad a narrative.

April Lindgren, who teaches journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto and formerly reported for the Globe and Mail, said polls are a handy device “to make a story look more scientific.”

“The danger is you take those poll numbers and you end up just finding evidence that reinforces the perception.”

Well-documented polling miscues — think of the last provincial elections in B.C. and Quebec, or Alberta’s 2012 campaign — show that reporters must beware poll-driven frames of reference, she said.

This summer’s partisan crowd sizes and reaction, which parties are getting or losing good candidates, who’s reaping donations and other factors will all go into the media hopper for reporting political fortunes.

Lindgren recalls the 2003 Ontario election campaign when Liberal Dalton McGuinty, riding high in the polls, visited a farmyard for a photo op. A bedraggled white kitten made a beeline for the premier-to-be, who picked it up for a priceless campaign visual.

“If things have really tanked, it seems nothing goes right. If things are going well, everything works your way,” said Lindgren.

For now, at least, the kittens are running to Mulcair.

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A timeline of Graham James’s legal history
June-19-15 1:01 PM

SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. – A chronology for convicted sex offender and former junior hockey coach Graham James, who pleaded guilty Friday to more sex-related charges:

1983-84: Graham James named head scout of the Western Hockey League’s Winnipeg Warriors and recruits Theoren Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy.

1984: Hired as head coach of the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors.

1986: Hired as head coach and GM of WHL’s Swift Current Broncos; acquires Kennedy in a trade.

Nov. 22, 1996: Calgary police charge James with two counts of sexual assault involving more than 300 encounters with two of his former players over a span of 10 years.

Jan. 2, 1997: Pleads guilty to sexual assault and is sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. The Canadian Hockey Association bans him for life from coaching.

Feb. 27, 1998: James pleads guilty to indecent assault on a 14-year-old boy in 1971. He receives a six-month concurrent sentence.

July 1, 2000: James’s sentence expires. He disappears from the public eye.

2001-03: James is found coaching boys teams in Spain, including the national team.

2003: A civil lawsuit, filed in 1999 by an anonymous victim, is settled out of court. James tells a Canadian reporter who finds him in Spain: “I’m sorry for all of this.”

2007: James quietly applies for and receives a pardon from the National Parole Board, prompting national outrage when it comes to light several years later.

October 2009: Fleury releases his autobiography “Playing with Fire” in which he alleges James sexually molested him from the age of 14.

January 2010: Fleury files a complaint with the Winnipeg Police Service, prompting an investigation into his allegations.

May 2010: Reporters track down James in Guadalajara, Mexico.

October 2010: Winnipeg police issue a Canada-wide warrant for James. He faces nine new sex charges involving three boys and spanning 1979 to 1994. James is apprehended by police at the Toronto airport and brought back to Winnipeg.

December 2010: James is granted bail and moves to Montreal.

Dec. 7, 2011: James pleads guilty to sexual offences involving Fleury and one unnamed victim.

March 2012: James is sentenced to two years.

Feb. 15, 2013: Manitoba Court of Appeal increases sentence to five years.

May 25, 2015: James is charged with sexual assault against a player he coached with the Swift Current Broncos in the early 1990s.

June 19, 2015: James pleads guilty to most-recent charges.