Dealing with a Gaffe

Everyone makes mistakes. Even (especially?) politicians. Unfortunately, for politicians, these embarrassing events happen in public and usually in front of a camera. Some gaffes can be easily overcome and some can destroy a campaign and hurt a career.

Let’s take a look at some classic politician gaffes:

Katz kicks a kid


Former Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz played soccer with some inner-city kids for a photo op. Unfortunately, things didn’t go well for Sam (or the kid). Sam missed the ball but managed to kick a kid in the face. Worse he continued to play the game without checking on the kid. Katz ended up being re-elected anyways.

Three Agencies?

In a policy debate, Rick Perry forgets his policy. He dropped out of the Republican race shortly thereafter.

Math is Difficult

math is difficult

Showing arrogance and condescension, Jim Prentice attacks NDP Leader (and then Premier) Rachel Notley on her economic policy by saying that “I know that math is difficult, Rachel.” Notley and her party handily disposed of the PCs and their dynasty a couple of weeks later.

Spelling is Difficult Too

At a photo-op just a few months before the 1992 election, Vice President Dan Quayle gives student a lesson in how not to spell.


The Dean Scream

Democratic insurgent candidate Howard Dean lost the Iowa Caucus in 2004 and then he briefly lost his mind…and his campaign flamed out shortly thereafter. Better to burn out than to fade away.

And Joe Biden…the gaffe-meister

There are entire videos on all of Joe’s gaffes. He is still Vice President of the United States.

Please Proceed Governor…

With millions of eyes watching the debate, Republican nominee dug himself deep into a whole as he tried to attack President Obama’s response to Benghazi. His campaign was over. In a slightly ironic twist, he received 47% of the vote.

Some politicians survived their gaffes. Some didn’t. Why? There are a two main determining factors:

1) Does it reinforce a narrative?

Jim Prentice was leader of a party that had governed for 44 years and was accused of being arrogant and out of touch. Some of his previous statements had been criticized as arrogant. He cemented the idea that he was arrogant by talking down to a female leader of a party. To make things even worse, his statement was actually wrong.

Rick Perry was never accused of being the brightest of all of the Republican candidates seeking the presidential nomination. His forgetting his own policy reinforced the opinion that he really wasn’t smart enough to be President. To remedy this problem, he has bought himself a fancy pair of smart looking glasses.

One would think kicking a kid in the face would be something that a politician couldn’t recover from. However, Sam Katz wasn’t known to walk down the street kicking kids. It was pretty easy to brush off as a clumsy mistake. People generally forget the first time a politician does something embarrassing. However, they won’t forget a second similar incident. A gaffe that reinforces an existing narrative is the type of gaffe that will sink your campaign/political career.

Know your narrative: know your strengths and weaknesses as both a candidate and a person. For example, if you know that you aren’t the most physically coordinated person, don’t have a photo-op playing sports. Try your best to avoid putting yourself in positions that can cause embarrassment.

2) The politician’s response to the gaffe.

Get ahead of the coverage.Address the issue and sincerely apologize (without any reservations) to anyone impacted by your mistake. Had Jim Prentice came out with a sincere apology to Rachel Notley about his mistake and his comment about math, he may have been able to move past it. Had Mitt Romney had released a clarification after getting fact checked by Crowley on TV, he may not have looked like the petty person that he appeared to be during the debate.

Don’t simply ignore the gaffe and move on. Hoping nobody notices it may be your first instinct but, if you don’t deal with it, you risk losing control of the coverage of the gaffe. With social media, things can go viral very quickly and it is better to get out ahead of the gaffe before that happens.

Use self-deprecating humour to defuse the situation. Laugh at yourself just a little. In fact, if you can effectively use humour to laugh at yourself, you can make yourself a little more relatable – everyone has felt the pangs of embarrassment before. Joe Biden’s entire political career has been dogged by his embarrassing gaffes. His folksy charm and humour has allowed him to bounce back every single time.


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What’s a By-election and why are we having one?!

Calgary-Foothills will be having a by-election at some point before the end of November.  A previous post by My Political Consultant Marc Power, What Happened to Jim Prentice? blog May 10Anne Wilson, 2015, explains the political disaster that consumed the PCs.  On May 5, Premier Jim Prentice won in Calgary-Foothills, and in his speech that night immediately resigned the seat.  A by-election is an election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between general elections.

Foothills still does not have representation after a previous by-election and a general election!   This blog will outline some of the rules around by-elections, and nominations for candidates for the by-election.

When is it held? The Premier, Rachel Notley, will decide when the by-election will be, but by law the election must be before the end of November.  The exact date has not yet been announced, however it has to take place within 6 months of the new Government having been sworn in (the Executive Council was sworn in on May 24/15 and the rest of the MLAs were sworn in on June 1/15).  The premier decides when to hold the by-election, which is after an election period of likely 28 days.

Who may vote in a by-election? Only the voters in Calgary-Foothills are the eligible voters in this by-election.

How much does a by-election cost? Sadly, the estimate for a by-election is $250,000.  There’s an interesting story of the mayor of Penticton voluntarily paying for the cost of a by-election when he decided to run provincially, but there is no law to make Mr. Prentice pay for the by-election.

The nomination for the NDP will likely be contested.  Now that the NDP is in government, the days of acclaimed nominations are over! Interestingly, there are some specific rules that will affect the potential candidates in the nomination contest.

Nomination Financing: It’s still the wild wild West when it comes to donations in a nomination contest, or as My Political Consultant says: rules, what rules?! A donor may donate any amount to a potential candidate in a nomination contest.  Elections Alberta has no reporting or accounting criteria for those donations.  This no-limit donation in a nomination is one of the rules that should be examined to see if it’s in the best interests of Albertans to have this kind of financing loop-hole.

Who may vote in a nomination contest?: Only those members  of the political party in that constituency are eligible to vote in a party’s nomination contest.

A by-election is necessary in Foothills, true, but after door-knocking in Foothill recently, I can say that Foothills doesn’t necessarily want a by-election!

Guest Blog by Anne Wilson, potential NDP candidate for Calgary-Foothills

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The Official Agent

There is no position on a campaign that gets less love than the Official Agent. They are like referees at a sporting event – you never hear about them until something goes really wrong.

The Official Agent does not just write cheques and show “Authorized by the Official Agent” on election materials.

Even though the Official Agent doesn’t get much love they are fundamentally important to any campaign – especially on large campaigns. The candidate and the Official Agent are two people on a campaign who can be held legally responsible for breaking election financing rules under the Canada Elections Act. In fact, it has happened twice in recent times – the Official Agents for former Conservative MPs Dean Del Mastro and Peter Penashue have both been charged for breaking election financing rules.  Paperwork

Anyone who is a non-bankrupt eligible voter can be an Official Agent. However, not everyone should be an Official Agent. It is a mistake for a candidate to pick someone out of sheer necessity to be their Official Agent. They should be looking for someone with a specific skill-set because the role is so crucial. This article will detail the responsibilities of someone who takes on the role of an Official Agent and give them some tips on how to effectively do their job on the campaign. As the forms and regulations can vary in each province for provincial/municipal campaigns, so I will focus on the roles of an Official Agent during federal election campaign.


  • Signing Candidate’s Elections Canada documents
  • Opening a campaign bank account
  • Accepting, depositing, and tracking donations from supporters
  • Providing receipts for donations
  • Understanding and enforcing campaign donation limits – in 2015, the federal limit is $1,500 for a personal donation. Corporate and union donations are prohibited.
  • Writing cheques for campaign expenses
  • Ensure that campaign expenses fall under the federal campaign expense limit
  • Completing the Election Financing Return via EFR software
  • Working with an auditor to ensure that all expenses are properly tracked, fall under campaign finance rules, and balance with donations
  • Send completed Election Financing Return with all original documentation to Elections Canada’s auditing department with the completed independent auditor’s report prior to filing deadline.


When looking to fill the role of Official Agent, a candidate should be looking for someone who is:

  • Supremely organized
  • Completely trustworthy
  • Understands the ins and outs of federal election financing rules
  • Good with numbers – possibly an accountant
  • Going to be readily available throughout the campaign to issue cheques to reimburse expenses
  • Going to be available post-campaign to complete the Election Financing Return


Here are some tips for someone who has accepted the role of Official Agent:

  • Find a mentor. If you are a first time Official Agent in a federal campaign, try to find someone who has prior experience as an Official Agent. They can help answer your questions about the process (ie setting up the bank account) and using the EFR program. Stay in touch with them and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Always understand every expense. Money is spent very quickly on a campaign and receipts will pile up faster than you expect. Before you make any cheques out to anyone, make sure that you know exactly what the expense is for. This is important for two reasons – 1) because you have to categorize each expense in the Election Finance Return system, 2) You need to ensure that the expense is a legitimate expense. As the Official Agent, you will be the person who has to answer for the cheques that you write so ensure that you know why you are writing them.
  • Create a form. Ask the campaign staff to complete a form for each receipt that they claim. On that form, you should get their name, address (in case you need to mail the cheque), phone number (in case that you or the auditor have questions about the expense), date of expense, and reason for the expense. Ensure that everyone who works for the campaign knows that this form is mandatory.
  • Always photocopy every receipt. Elections Canada asks for originals of each receipt. Photocopy each receipt and put the original receipt in a safe location (that you will remember!) so that you won’t lose them. Use the photocopied receipts when you are entering the expense into EFR.
  • Regularly keep the Campaign Manager informed on current expense totals and how far the campaign is away from the expense limit. You are the one who has to ensure that the campaign does not blow past the campaign limit. Campaign Managers are the ones who generally decide what the money needs to be spent on. They should know how much room they have.
  • Don’t write expense cheques until you’ve entered the expenses into EFR software. The return is much easier if you ensure that the expenses are logged in the system before you write the cheque.
  • Do the Election Financing Return early. As soon as the election is over, election workers tend to scatter and it becomes really difficult to get answers to questions about the campaign expenses. Doing the return early also gives you time to work with the auditor to ensure that everything has been properly entered on the return and get the approval.
  • Work closely with your Auditor. The Auditor knows the process extremely well and will probably guide you to ensure that everything has been properly entered into EFR. The auditor is usually appointed by the political party and if you are not sure who the auditor is, you should contact the federal office of your party.

Being an Official Agent isn’t the easiest job in the world but it is important. Even if you don’t feel the love, rest assured that you are helping your candidate make your country a better place.

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Party Discipline and Ego

As a candidate, your name and face is plastered everywhere on your campaign – from lawn signs to literature to billboards. It would be easy to start to believe that the campaign is all about you. Unless you are running as an Independent candidate, this is simply not the case. ego

An overwhelming majority of those who are successfully elected to public office run under a party banner. Running with a party has massive benefits – supporter lists, brand recognition, financial backers, and a PR team (to name just a few).

The benefits come with some trade offs. You will likely face a vetting process to ensure that there is nothing that your opposition can use against you. This process can be stressful and potentially embarrassing but it is ultimately a means of protecting you and the party. You also will need to understand the party platform and use your personal skills to sell it to the voting public.

Hopefully, as a member of the party that you are running for, you will agree with the vast majority of the platform. However, there may be parts of the platform that you may have some disagreement with. No party is a monolith that is made up of members who agree on every detail. When you sign up to be a candidate for a party, you should accept that you won’t publicly air your grievances with those platform planks that you disagree with. The proper place to have those discussions is behind closed doors. I assure you that the party platform has been designed to help you attract the maximum amount of support because it has been thoroughly tested with potential voters.

I see party politics similar to singing in a choir. A great choir is made up a vast array of different voices who sing different parts – tenor, bass, soprano, alto, etc – but ultimately, they are all singing the same song. As soon as one person starts to sing a different song, the whole choir suffers. If you consistently deviate from the party platform and challenge it publicly, you risk bringing down every other candidate who is running under the same party banner.

Does this mean that you should become a robot who simply parrots the party talking points? Of course not. . As a candidate, you need to breathe life to the platform. Within that process you can likely massage the delivery of the message a little bit so that local voters will connect to it.

Politics demand a certain amount of ego. You need significant confidence to sell your vision and even more confidence handle the attacks that can come back at you. Party politics may ask you to suppress your ego from time to time. You may not have 100% flexibility to speak your mind in public at all time.

Remember that successful election campaigns are not vanity projects. They are true team efforts and they provide you with a wonderful opportunity to make the lives of your friends, family, and neighbours better.

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