Saturday, March 22, 2008

On consultation

I'll deal in more detail later with a couple of articles. But let's start by pointing out part of Bill Curry's article which seems to have been far too easily lost in an otherwise negative narrative:
Mr. Layton enjoys solid and widespread support within the party and his caucus. Part of that is because he has taken the party to 30 seats from 13 and has inserted himself into the political consciousness of Quebec.

Lesser known, however, is his commitment to consulting every corner of the party's grassroots. From provincial leaders, to candidates, to political leaders on campus, Mr. Layton spends virtually every free moment canvassing NDP supporters. Further, he scolds his Ottawa staff if they have not shown similar zeal.
Naturally there still figures to be some room for improvement. In particular, it's not clear from the story that Layton's strategy has taken the next step from Ottawa-centred consultation to putting similar effort into connecting NDP supporters - and more importantly potential supporters - across the country.

But Layton's commitment to grassroots input still stands in stark contrast to Stephane Dion's top-down appointments strategy, or Deceivin' Stephen's unwillingness to even consider outside input until his inner circle has completely run out of things to say. Which means that while there's plenty of room to criticize "politics as usual" in the abstract, the NDP's efforts to ensure that its grassroots get heard make it part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Canada's Snoozing Government

The sale of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates - along with its publicly-funded Radarsat-2 satellite - would seem to be a relatively easy issue to deal with on its own. But Jim Prentice says he needs another 30 days - presumably to consider whether he can find a way to justify allowing the deal to go through.

The open disposal of blueprints for a sensitive counter-terrorism facility would seem to be a problem no matter what any investigation could come up with. But Stockwell Day is trying to buy time rather than admitting even that much.

And after one public report and several months of public hearings, there's no real reason to keep pushing off on the expected Mulroney/Schreiber inquiry. But instead of fulfilling his promise, Deceivin' Stephen has now hit the snooze button by requesting yet another report from David Johnston - which itself depends on a not-yet-completed report from the House of Commons ethics committee - before he'll even think of putting the inquiry in motion.

Which leads to the question: shouldn't the federal government have at least some interest in getting things done, rather than spending its time asking the public for unjustified extensions?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

On expectations

So we've now confirmed that the full extent of the Red Green argument about the NDP holding fire against the Cons amounts to a complaint that while the NDP criticizes the Cons in three quarters of its press releases, it missed an opportunity to do so on Heritage Day. Which, from my standpoint, should nicely dispense with the conventional wisdom surrounding this week's by-election results (even if it doesn't stop Libs or Greens from continuing to ignore the evidence).

That said, let's take one last look at what the NDP could (and should) have done better surrounding the by-elections. And in that regard, I'll expand somewhat on my analysis from before the results came in.

The central theme which I didn't pick up at that time was a gap between the NDP and the other parties in giving voters a specific reason to cast a by-election ballot in their favour. Leading up to the by-elections, the Libs were frantic to try to hold onto their seats and build some momentum; the Cons made ample noise about road-testing their ethnic communities strategy; and the Greens spent plenty of time talking about challenging the NDP and turning their polling numbers into votes.

The NDP, on the other hand, didn't do much (from what I saw) to set any public expectations or goals going into the by-elections. In essence, the message aside from a contrast against other parties was "vote NDP for the sake of voting NDP". And in retrospect, despite the best efforts of the NDP's riding volunteers, that likely meant both that solid NDP supporters had little reason to make the effort to vote, and that swing voters had little immediate reason to favour the NDP over the other parties who had set out what they planned to accomplish through the by-elections.

Now, there are some mitigating factors. In each of the ridings in play the NDP finished between 13% and 45% behind the party in front of it in 2006, making it a dubious proposition to set expectations of passing anybody without any star candidates in the mix. And unlike the Greens, the NDP couldn't plausibly claim a triumph in putting up a double-digit percentage of the vote.

But that doesn't mean the NDP couldn't have worked to set goals and meet them. That could have taken the form of seeking to close some of the existing gaps, or trying to send the Libs a message that their non-opposition isn't acceptable, or even of giving valuable experience to a new set of bright young candidates (which might have both provided an end goal and explained some hiccups in the results).

Instead, the NDP failed to set public expectations before the trip to the polls. Which not only figures to have hurt the NDP's results in the by-elections themselves, but had left the party offering a dubious explanation after the fact as to why those results shouldn't be given too much credence. But even the "we weren't really trying" excuse lends itself to the question of why the party wouldn't have set at least some goals.

In sum, the lesson to be taken from the by-elections should be that the NDP can't afford to let such a substantial event pass without making a concerted effort to influence the media narrative. And hopefully the NDP will both learn from that mistake, and keep up its work on a broader narrative that only it can provide an effective counterbalance to the Cons.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Nicely put

IP challenges Lib supporters to actually provide some evidence to support their well-developed (and ignorance-based) conventional wisdom that the NDP has somehow given the Cons a free pass - with predictably insubstantial results. Now if only the Libs' supporters online weren't well enough trained in their confirmation bias to ignore that kind of post...

Behind the loss

Before this week's by-elections fade from view entirely, let's highlight a couple of little-noticed points surrounding the results in Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River.

First, as the Globe and Mail notes, the Libs' candidate appointment may not have been the only time when the party shot itself in the foot, as Lib-supported voter suppression legislation may have been another factor in the Cons' win:
(Liberal campaign officials) blamed their poor numbers partly on complacency among supporters who thought their candidate, former NDP cabinet minister Joan Beatty, had the riding sewn up, and on new election regulations that complicated the voting process for people on reserves. They say hundreds of people may have been prevented from voting because they didn't have photo ID and couldn't present proof of a civic address.
Of course, the Libs presumably made a calculated trade-off when they voted for the new voting rules in the first place, likely to the effect that they'd gain more ground by making voting difficult in urban areas than they'd lose in ridings like Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River. Which makes it disingenuous at best for the Libs to now be complaining about the obvious results of a bill which they supported.

That said, it does seem noteworthy that even in the face of the same rules, the NDP still managed to increase its share of the vote. Which might well reflect a real increase in NDP support in the riding - even if the Libs have gone out of their way to prevent it from registering at the polls.

Second, I'd mentioned when Beatty was first appointed, the respective vote totals required to win a federal riding as opposed to a provincial one made it doubtful that her provincial connections would get her much of the way to a victory. The flip side, of course, was that the federal riding would include far more voters with the ability to show their support - meaning that Beatty's seeming base level of support would include her provincial supporters plus the Libs' usual voters in the other half of the riding.

But interestingly enough, Beatty's vote total of 3,287 in the by-election lines up almost perfectly with her provincial totals (3,124 in 2007 and 3,268 in 2003) in a riding covering only half the area of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River. Which offers just another indication of how far the Libs fell short of expectations - and raises the question of whether Beatty, Orchard or anybody else can make up for the ground the Libs gave away.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


IP has an interesting riding-by-riding take on last night's by-election results. But let's take a moment to note one important factor in the results before looking at my take for each party.

While IP's percentage-based graphs make all movement among parties appear to be based on a zero-sum game, the reality of the by-election may be somewhat different due to the lower turnout. In fact, for all the relatively sharp increases on a percentage basis, only two candidates topped their party's actual vote total from 2006 (those being Greens Dan Grice in Vancouver Quadra, and Chris Tindal in Toronto Centre).

In contrast, for example, the Cons' victory in Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River and near-upset in Vancouver Quadra look to have been based primarily on a particularly sharp dropoff in Lib turnout in those ridings; likewise the Greens' passing the NDP for third in Willowdale. And nothing in the results seems to suggest that any party actually bled a substantial amount of support to anybody else, rather than simply having more difficulty motivating past supporters to go to the polls.

So what can each party take from last night's results?

For the Cons, it's hard to disagree with IP's take. But I do have to wonder whether the Cons' unimpressive Ontario results are less a matter of of a rural/urban split, and more a wider-ranging provincial response to the Cons' recent potshots at the province.

While the Libs will naturally be happy with the Ontario results, their biggest issue is again the dropoff in turnout in the Western ridings. While Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River might be explained as the revenge of David Orchard, there's far less apparent reason why two-thirds of the party's supporters would stay home in Vancouver Quadra - particularly when Dion's top organizer is the architect of the B.C. Lib government which included Joyce Murray.

Unfortunately, the NDP is probably the only party which won't find much upside in last night's results; at best, it can say that its losses were modest in ridings where it didn't manage to generate much buzz. As I mentioned yesterday, that outcome seems to reflect the NDP's need to keep its candidates in the headlines rather than relying solely on its ground game - though of course that's sometimes easier said than done.

Finally, the Greens will of course be perfectly content with the outcome in the three urban ridings. And indeed the most promising outcome may be in the lone riding which saw the Greens stay in fourth place, as any continuation of the Libs' drop in Vancouver Quadra could turn that riding into one of the Greens' best chances of sneaking to victory in a four-way split. But their foray into the expectations game looks to have been a disaster, as their now-disappeared internal polling supposedly showing them running second in Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River has given way to an actual result that left them 14 points out of third place.

All of which is to say that like most other developments in Canadian politics since the 2006 election, yesterday's by-elections seem to speak more to inertia and apathy than any lasting change. Which leaves only the question of who's willing to go back to the drawing board to try to radically improve their position (even if that means taking some risks) - and who's convinced that the status quo is close enough to where they want to be to keep playing it safe.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Contributing factors

Tossing in my two cents' worth on today's byelections, it's tough to disagree with the consensus that the Libs figure to hold on to each of the urban ridings while Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River is somewhere between a tossup and a likely Con pickup. But the votes in Toronto Centre, Willowdale and Vancouver Quadra nonetheless figure to offer an interesting experiment as to the different strategies and strengths of the non-Lib parties.

The Cons have gone out of their way to downplay the importance of the ridings, but two elements in play figure to help their cause. And while much has been made of their efforts to connect with ethnic communities, the more significant factor to me looks to be the effect of media coverage which has often proclaimed the Cons to be the main challenger even where history would suggest otherwise. Which combined with the Cons' national advertising strategy makes their result a proxy for the role of the "air war" as opposed to other factors.

The Greens, meanwhile, have plainly gone the other way in the expectations game by releasing surprising-looking internal polls - apparently looking to push their numbers upward for the by-election in hopes that a higher base for next election will make up for the likely disappointment if the Greens do fall short of their own expectations. Which makes them into a test case for the effectiveness of what I'd describe as opinion management - with an even more interesting test to come as to whether they're able to hold onto any gains.

Then there's the NDP, which even with solid candidates all around and a history of contending in two of the ridings has largely stayed under the media radar - a radical departure from the successful push to get Thomas Mulcair's name in the headlines early and often in order to win Outremont.

Of course, that strategy figures to be based on at least some calculation that today's contests will be tougher ones for the NDP. What I'm watching for, though, is any sign that the NDP's behind-the-scenes growth will be able to keep it at least in line with the usual results even despite the lack of public exposure based on a sufficiently strong ground operation. And if not, then one has to figure the NDP will need to put more effort into the strategies that would then have worked for the Cons and/or Greens.

What about the Libs? It's hard to glean much information at all from their results simply because everything seems to be in their favour: star candidates, safe ridings, ample coverage and leads in the polls. Which means that if the Libs can't cruise through, the story may be less one of a particular strategy failing than of a party in serious trouble.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

More motion creep

Following up on yesterday's post, it looks like the Cons indeed have previously-unannounced assurances that the U.S. will provide enough added troops to meet the requirement in the Con/Lib Afghanistan motion. But Peter MacKay still can't help looking for excuses to avoid living up to the motion:
In an interview Sunday with The Canadian Press, Defence Minister Peter MacKay confirmed weeks of speculation, saying the Americans have “signalled that they will backstop” Canada with reinforcements in Kandahar after February 2009 if necessary...

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Mr. MacKay cautioned against talk of a NATO exit strategy...

“This type of insurgency is a long and abiding challenge. This is going to take a consistent, long-term effort,” Mr. MacKay said.
Now, it's bizarre enough to suggest that there should be no exit strategy whatsoever. Surely if there's any purpose at all to NATO's presence, there must be some accompanying expectation as to the circumstances under which an exit would be anticipated, and some planning to accomplish the task.

But the statement is all the more dubious based on the extension motion. After all, one of the supposed victories of the Libs in negotiating the terms of the motion was their obtaining a firm exit date (and accompanying strategy):
(T)his extension of Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan is approved by this House expressly on the condition that:...

(c) the government of Canada notify NATO that Canada will end its presence in Kandahar as of July 2011, and, as of that date, the redeployment of Canadian Forces troops out of Kandahar and their replacement by Afghan forces start as soon as possible, so that it will have been completed by December 2011;

(T)he government of Canada, together with our allies and the government of Afghanistan, must set firm targets and timelines for the training, equiping of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the members of the judicial system and the members of the correctional system;
At best, one could argue that MacKay's expectation is that other NATO countries will take over combat in Kandahar beginning in 2011. But then the motion itself makes little sense in referring specifically to timelines for training the Afghan forces who are supposed to serve as permanent replacements, rather than simply stating that somebody else would take over any continued NATO role.

Which means that once again, MacKay looks to have wasted no time in taking back what little ground the Cons may have given in the interests of a supposed compromise. And if the Cons end up in a position to renege on the 2011 end date as well, the responsibility again lies with a supposed opposition party which should have known better than to think Deceivin' Stephen would deal with them in good faith.