Saturday, November 08, 2008

NDP Strategic Review, Step 2: Uniting the Left

Having dealt with what looks to be the less contentious preferences as to how the NDP should look to build itself up from within, I'll move on to the question of whether and how the NDP should be relating to the other parties on Canada's political scene.

I've used the "unite the left behind the NDP" tag on a couple of posts before, and it nicely encapsulates what the party should be seeking to do.

I'll note however that the NDP focus doesn't mean ignoring the other federal parties or their supporters. Instead, it means continuing to work with other parties and their supporters where along with actors in the progressive movement where there's agreement on specific issues. And once there's been either a significant achievement or a loss that's come about due to a lack of combined political power, that's the time to seek to persuade the other actors involved both that a unified effort is required to push a progressive agenda, and that the NDP is the best vehicle for getting the job done done.

In contrast, the idea of a formal party merger is almost certainly a non-starter. The most often-mooted scenario involving the Libs simply leaves far too much likelihood that the NDP's current strength, like the progressive wing within the existing Libs, would simply be drowned out by the traditional dominance of business Libs when it comes time to decide what priorities to pursue. Which means that any merger would be almost certain to spawn another party to provide exactly the kind of voice the NDP now offers.

That isn't to say that the most obvious source of strength for the NDP is anything but the progressive Libs who for now have hooked onto a party which they see as more likely to take power. But the draw for those people has to be a strengthened NDP from other sources to persuade them that they don't have to accept playing second fiddle to the centre-right in order to win power.

Slightly more likely would be the possibility of joining forces with the Greens. But I'd want to see some awfully compelling reason to think that a combined party would actually have a strong likelihood of winning a wider cross-section of support than the NDP does already to make it worth the effort of fusing the two party structures.

Perhaps most intriguing is the question of whether the Bloc could be largely brought on board. If leftish Bloc members have any interest in joining a Canada-wide government in the making in order to boost progressive efforts both inside and outside Quebec, then the balance of risks and rewards would look to be by far the most favourable.

The problem for now, though, is that with both the Bloc and the NDP looking to be fairly satisfied with the recent election results, it's hard to see either wanting to take the risk involved in proposing a merger with part or all of the other. And indeed the NDP could reasonably figure that it's best off working to siphon off Bloc supporters individually to take over if it expects the Bloc to lose strength naturally, rather than pushing now for a formal alliance which might not play well elsewhere.

Of course, there are also options short of a complete merger. But those would likely raise many of the same problems as a merger with less of the rewards - making them too into a less viable option for now than simply working to build the NDP as a magnet for progressive values.

In sum, the NDP certainly should be building connections into all of the other "left" parties, and continuing to frame a message of unity similar to the Unite 4 Change concept which received some mention during the most recent campaign. But its efforts are almost certainly better directed toward winning individual supporters one by one, rather than looking to any formal merger as a short cut to the same final goal.

(Edit: fixed title.)

NDP Strategic Review, Step 1: No Support Left Behind

Before getting into my discussion of the strategic issues raised by Brian Topp and Les Campbell, let's add NDP Outsider's post as well as a Babble discussion to the mix.

With those sources in play as well, let's start with what looks to me to be the most important available opportunity.

Most of the sources talk at least somewhat about expanding the party's reach through something akin to the U.S. Democrats' 50-state strategy. But there seems to be some significant difference of opinion as to whether the party should immediately start paring down its sights to go after only the most readily available gains (see Topp's "without foolishly dissipating resources" proviso which assumes a net cost to reaching out, or NDP Outsider's targeting top-down communications to targeted groups), or whether the step should involve a willingness to establish an NDP infrastructure even where the prospect of an immediate payoff in seats may be remote.

From my standpoint, the clear preference has to be for the latter. And indeed, considering the NDP's need to expand beyond its traditional bases in order to form government, the decision seems more obvious for the NDP than for any other party: no stone should be left unturned and no area unorganized in an effort to build a structure which can facilitate party loyalty and support growth for many election cycles to come.

Now, that doesn't mean focusing solely on current dead zones either. Instead, it means starting from the same point as the Obama campaign - putting the initial emphasis on recruiting and training as many volunteers as can be brought into the fold from as wide an area as possible, and making sure that participants see themselves as both empowered to work creatively on the party's behalf, and accountable for getting results.

If the step works, then that volunteer structure should not only be able to spread the party's message to peers in ways far more persuasive than a robocall or a TV ad can possibly be, but also improve the party's capacity to bring dollars and votes into the fold when they're most needed. And that's what the NDP will need in order to accelerate its current progress.

Of course, there may well be a time for targeting, which would come in the lead up to another election campaign. But the greatest mistake the NDP could make would be to leave potential supporters and volunteers out of the fold by failing to look beyond the current electoral and demographic assumptions. And with the Cons focusing on governing and the Libs tied up in another leadership race, now is the best opportunity the NDP may have to build a grassroots network which can expand its current reach.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Artistic differences

Sure, the Cons may use the economic downturn as an excuse for their decision to cancel all plans for a national portrait gallery. But the real reason is obvious enough: contrary to the Cons' intentions, all of the proposals insisted on displaying more than just portraits of Stephen Harper.

Points of discussion

The Globe and Mail's NDP strategy session with Les Campbell and Brian Topp is definitely worth a look (at least the parts other than an extended tangent on Afghanistan). I'll plan to deal with some of the suggestions in more detail later. But for now, I'll note a couple of passages which seem particularly worthy of additional discussion.

First, from Campbell:
I believe the NDP can lead a unite-the-centre-left movement. The Liberal Party, still not willing to acknowledge the end of its incredible run, seems to be headed for another tribal gathering where its members will choose a leader that satisfies their internal impulses without responding to Canada as a whole or to their radically diminished capabilities.

While it might make you unpopular within our ranks, I'd suggest that you quietly meet with Preston Manning, Rick Anderson and the others who helped unite the right — there are lessons to be learned.

The NDP, in pursuing internal renewal, should invite all interested citizens to take part in the discussion. Give young people a reason to get involved in politics. Start a debate about a united left. Sponsor town hall meetings. Develop a method for public input in the policy renewal process. Commission papers. Launch a cross-country "listening" tour. Enlist NDP MPs and ask them to reach out to supporters of the other parties. Capture the agenda, downplay partisanship and emphasize hope. Try to recreate the Obama feeling in Canada by asking everyone to get involved.

Do it now — don't wait for the Liberals to regain their footing.
And from Topp:
There is always room for improvement in every aspect of our work. But to my mind we are now essentially competitive in the campaign "air war." We can match the Tory-Liberals dollar for dollar nationally. We can break through their monopoly of public dialogue on television, where elections are decided. We can run rings around them on the Internet. And we can even get the occasional article into, praise the Lord.

Where we have some daunting work to do is on the ground. There is a lot to say about this, but the bottom line is that a prerequisite to victory is taking a winning campaign into our opponents' fortresses and cracking them there - riding by riding, on the ground. We need our version of the 50-state strategy, without foolishly dissipating resources.

On allegiances

It's always worth noting when the public manages to get a glimpse behind the Cons' facade of party unit - as has happened again today. But more significant than the mere fact that there are some internal battles looming is the strategy the Harper regime is appparently using to try to quell them:
A key goal of the postmortems is to put an end to infighting between the provincial supporters of the Quebec Liberal Party and the Action Démocratique du Québec, who make up much of the Conservative team in Quebec.

During the federal campaign, a number of prominent positions were in the hands of ADQ supporters, and many Conservatives with ties to the provincial Liberals blamed them for the poor results.

The clear directive from the Conservative hierarchy is for all Quebec supporters to put their federal allegiances first and foremost...

Conservative organizers are being urged to focus their energies on governing, and to limit their contribution to the current Quebec campaign.
Now, it may seem that Pauline Marois should be sending Harper a thank-you card for the directive. All indications are that the PQ is at least in striking distance of the Charest Liberals - and to the extent Harper succeeds in ordering any substantial chunk of Charest's party to sit out the provincial election, the likelihood of a PQ government increases accordingly.

That is, assuming that Harper's order actually sways anybody to stay out of the provincial campaign. But it's hard to see how the Cons can really expect to have deeper roots than the provincial parties (particularly the Libs). And one could easily foresee most provincial organizers calling the Cons' bluff and severing their federal ties - or at least viewing the other side of the divide with even more suspicion.

So the request to stand down from the provincial race poses loads of potential downsides for the Cons and for those who would heed the call. And all in the interests of...what, exactly? Last anybody checked, there was no indication that even most cabinet ministers had any particular ability to influence the course of Harper's government, meaning that organizers can't expect to get much done merely by focusing on "governing".

At best, one might figure that the Cons are simply looking to lock in half of the internal divide. While there doesn't seem to be any reason to think Charest's party would want to abandon ship in the middle of a run for a majority, it could be that supporters of a weakened ADQ will be willing to make the federal Cons into their main political vehicle.

But that seems to be an awfully remote possibility compared to the virtual certainty that the call to abandon provincial politics will both boost the PQ, and drive away Con organizers who actually care about both levels of government. And it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the latest gambit ends up backfiring even more than most of the Cons' efforts to deal with Quebec.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Harper rules

The jury is still out on how much change there is between the list of Con policy resolutions posted by National Newswatch and the final one.

But it's worth noting a rather striking proposal just three pages into the list now available. Apparently due to some concern about the fact that ministers now theoretically "have authority" over their porfolios, the Cons' central command is looking to eliminate that from the party's statement of principles - while at the same time leaving the blame at the departmental level.

Of course, that may be a matter of reflecting Harper's actual control over his cabinet rather than any change in what the Cons actually do. But surely it says plenty about the Cons' caucus that it's focused on little more than further entrenching the combination of top-down power and lower-level responsibility.

On journalistic negligence

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has released a study highlighting the value of infrastructure spending as a means of boosting Canada's economy. But it would have a far better chance of having the needed impact if the Canadian Press could be bothered to report what the FCM actually said.

Here's the FCM's message about the delays to date:
Because of administrative delays, the cost-shared $8.8 billion federal Building Canada Fund (BCF), announced in the 2007 budget, has, so far, financed very few projects leaving close to $3 billion in unspent federal money...

“What is needed now is the political will to cut red tape and ensure that the money budgeted for these projects in 2007 and 2008 gets spent immediately.”
Now, the FCM is remarkably willing to avoid casting any blame for the delays, given that it's the federal government which insisted on the agreement process, then failed to get anything done. But given the FCM's relative neutrality, one could understand if coverage merely omitted that detail.

What doesn't make any sense, though, is to try to turn the FCM's message into a one-sided slam at the provinces. And that's exactly what the CP report does:
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities says there are hundreds of municipal projects ready to go that can be financed by existing funding. But it says the provinces are taking too long to sign spending agreements with Ottawa.
And then there are the potential effects of infrastructure spending. The FCM rightly points out that it would actually be far more effective than tax cuts in stimulating the economy:
The study, conducted last June and updated in October, looks at the economic impact of accelerated infrastructure investments. It compares the stimulus impact of $1 billion in tax cuts (personal and excise tax) to the same amount in accelerated infrastructure investment.

The study shows that even a combined $2-billion tax reduction would produce fewer jobs and a lower economic stimulus than $1 billion dollars spent upgrading roads, bridges and water mains.
Which the CP somehow manages to turn into something else entirely:
The reports says accelerating $1 billion in infrastructure spending would have the same impact as a $1-billion tax cut.
So who might stand to benefit from an interpretation which absolves the federal government of any responsibility for delays in funding, while wrongly pretending that tax cuts would serve the same purpose just as effectively?

Alone in the world

The Harper regime obviously isn't wasting any time trying to shape Barack Obama's stay in office. But for all the misleading talk about the Cons' plans fitting in with Obama's, there are plenty of important differences - including one in particular where Bush's departure will put the Cons offside from the U.S. (along with most of the rest of the world):
U.S. environmentalists argue that Ottawa's approach to climate change is inconsistent with a serious effort to reduce emissions, and insist the oil sands represent the kind of dirty sources of crude oil that a new administration should be most worried about.

“The trend in the United States is a much greater focus on lower-carbon fuels and promoting energy efficiency,” said Liz Barratt-Brown, a senior lawyer with Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

“That approach does not bar tar sands, but it would make it much more difficult for refiners and blenders to lower the carbon content of their fuels if they are relying more on high-carbon supplies from Canada.”

California has already passed regulations that require gasoline marketers to reduce the carbon emissions from their fuel sources, and require them to account for those emissions right back to the production source.

Mr. Obama's campaign platform promised a similar approach, which has also been included in climate-change bills that have been introduced in Congress.

Ms. Barratt-Brown noted that, unlike U.S. plans, Canada's approach does not include a firm cap on emissions, but instead uses an “intensity target” which regulates emissions on the basis of production levels.
Needless to say, there's no apparent reason why Obama would want to undermine his own emission reduction plan by allowing the Cons to dictate the terms of any climate change deal. Which means that if the Cons do manage to get Obama to talk about the kind of deal they're now pushing, they'll soon face a choice of either admitting that their approach all along has been woefully inadequate, or scuttling their own talks due to an insistence on letting the oil sands off the hook for emission increases.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

On hidden motivations

It's not that Bob Rae's suggestions to make the Libs' leadership race a small-money, more inclusive affair are bad ones. But when one of the two candidates who would seem to have the most to gain from rules that favour established organization makes a public call for just the opposite, it's worth wondering just what might be behind the move.

Is it that Rae's organization is weak enough at the moment that he doesn't think he'll be able to keep up with a higher-resource Ignatieff campaign?

Is it in hope that with a more diverse candidate field, there will be less focus on his own personal negatives than if he and Ignatieff spend the entire race under the microscope?

Or is Rae trying to curry the favour of also-rans in hopes of winning their endorsements once the battle is down to two candidates - even though last time out that same strategy failed to actually bring delegates into his corner?

On missed opportunities

Blogging Horse has a nice catch in highlighting Dwight Duncan's observation that Jack Layton and the New Democrats alone among the federal parties have shown "the guts to tell it like it is" when it comes to the needs of Ontario's manufacturing base. But wouldn't it have made more sense for Duncan to make the point a month ago when it could actually have had an impact on federal representation?

Setting the tone

It's indeed a historic day, with Barack Obama winning the U.S. presidency and increased Democratic majorities appearing in both the House and Senate. But while it's certainly worth celebrating the occasion, there's still an awful lot to be done to make sure those numbers translate into real change.

In FDR's terms, the "now, go out and make me do it" phase is just beginning - as how the election result is framed and turned into action will make all the difference in what happens from here on in.

And it isn't just the U.S. which has a stake in ensuring that the Democrats live up to their promise. For anybody in Canada or around the world who wants to see NAFTA and other trade agreements reworked to include meaningful labour and environmental protections, or who recognizes the link between corporate-driven U.S. policies and a race to the bottom elsewhere in the name of competition, now is the time to convert the energy and hope which drove last night's ballot-box repudiation of Bushism into ongoing issue-based action. And if that effort succeeds, then last night will be only the first of many victories to come.

Update: Good to see that Obama himself seems to agree:
(A)bove all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek – it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers – in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Heavily redacted

Mentarch and pogge have already covered a couple of the more important angles in today's CBC report on Environment Canada documents which were left on a street last year. But it's worth pointing out another issue in how the Cons' perception of the documents has changed:
Last August, a 131-page document in an envelope marked "Protected B" was found by a passerby on a street in Ottawa's Kanata area and given to the CBC.

The papers provide a risk assessment of an Environment Canada enforcement database that tracks polluters and law-breakers and the steps taken to enforce environmental and wildlife-protection legislation.

At the time, Baird brushed off the lost document saying, "it's neither classified nor secret, and it'll be something that could be available under access to information."

But a CBC request under the Access to Information Act for a copy of the same document found the content heavily redacted.

Ninety-seven of 131 pages had parts deleted that related to the security of the environment database, including its failings and vulnerabilities.
Now, I'm not sure whether the CBC or anybody else still has an original copy of the documents to compare. But while there's every reason for doubt about Baird's initial assertion about the documents, there's also room for suspicion about the sheer quantity of material that's been blacked out now that CBC has followed the Cons' suggested process.

After all, the Cons' stay in office has been marked by repeated efforts to suppress information in the absence of any good reason for doing so. And indeed, their instructions to overclassify documents was part of the story when the documents in question were first found.

So to the extent the documents are ones where the CBC has actually seen the original version, this might be a prime case study in whether or not the Cons are once again wrongfully suppressing information. Which means that if the CBC challenges the decision to black out as much material as they did (with Baird's statement serving as evidence that there wasn't any reason to redact anything), then the most interesting part of the story may be yet to come.

Unequal distributions

Andrew Potter is right in noting that most reporting on the Cons' equalization announcement has buried the lede, as Jim Flaherty's unilateral declaration that he plans to cap increases in future payments based on the movement of the national GDP looks far more important than the single-year numbers which dominated the headlines. But even Potter seems to miss just what the cap means for equalization in general.

Let's go back to the principles underlying equalization that I'd discussed when a cap was first mentioned last week:
(I)t's worth keeping in mind a fairly obvious point: if equalization payments are growing at a particular pace under the formula which the Cons approved, then so too is inequality among the provinces by Flaherty's own terms.
What Flaherty has effectively done is to completely detach inequality among the provinces from any calculation as to how much equalization should be paid. And it's hard to see how one can square that with the purpose of equalization in general.

After all, if the goal of equalization is to ensure at least relatively similar capacity to provide services across the country, then it should make all the difference in the world just how large the gap is between the wealthier provinces and the poorer ones. And if the gap increases for the same amount of economic activity, then there's every reason for more equalization to be paid - which should be possible due to what would presumably be higher tax returns from the wealthier areas (assuming a remotely functional progressive tax system).

But not so under the Cons' plan. So long as Canada's central industrial heartland remains in dire enough straits to deflate national economic performance, the amount of equalization paid will also stagnate regardless of how much more wealth might be accumulating in the "have" provinces.

Needless to say, the Cons would likely have been duly punished at the polls if they'd gone public with their plan to remove the concept of relative equality from the equalization program. And given how quickly they've started in on opening up the field for increased regional disparities, it doesn't figure to be long before the same starts happening among income levels in general.

Monday, November 03, 2008

On mandates

Shorter Peter Milliken and Noel Kinsella, trying to start a turf war against Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page:

Dammit, how are members of Parliament supposed to pretend to know better than the unwashed masses when you insist on providing accurate information to the public?

(Edit: added label.)

Left hanging

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that the bulk of the Libs' leadership contenders had gone out of their way to accept being associated with the idea of being left of centre. But it's worth pointing out another striking development: thanks to Bob Rae's pledge of allegiance to the mushy middle, the Libs' leadership race now features a grand total of zero viable candidates who are willing to even pretend to represent the left.

Let's try this

Since no new candidates have yet made moves to enter the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race - and with even Dwain Lingenfelter's public presence remaining silent in the absence of any declared opposition - it's obviously time to try to spur some of the would-be candidates to action. So without any further ado...

(Deb Higgins/Frank Quennell/Len Taylor/Andrew Thomson/Nettie Wiebe/Yens Pedersen/Dion Tchorzewski) has expressed some hesitation to close friends about whether (he/she) will enter the campaign.
With any luck, we should actually have a race within days.

(Edit: fixed typo.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Strong openings

NDP Left posts the opening statements from the candidates at the first debates in Ontario NDP leadership race. And while there's plenty of good material, Andrea Horwath's opening looks particularly interesting in picking up on exactly the part of the Obama message which I'm hoping to see imitated by the NDP federally and provincially:
(W)hen I think about what we need in this province I think about what I’ve learned because after university I spent most of my career as an organizer. I organized the Days of Action in Hamilton, I’ve organized co-op housing in Welland and that’s what I believe we need in this party - we need organizers.
Of course, in Obama's case that organizing ability and focus beneath the surface has always been matched by a candidate who's been able to offer a persona and vision which has inspired a remarkable number of people to become part of the organizing effort. And the NDP has some work to do on those areas as well - though to a point I wonder whether a party should actually have an easier time of that than would an individual candidate.

That said, it's essential for leaders on the provincial and national levels to recognize the need to put organizing at the forefront of what the party seeks to do. So kudos to Horwath for making that her focus - and hopefully whoever wins the leadership in Ontario (along with holding similar roles across the country) will take the message to heart.

Rally caps

Nick Kohler rightly notes that Canada currently doesn't have anywhere near the type of political rallies which the Obama campaign has been able to generate. But I have to wonder whether the theories presented as to why reflect a classic case of failing to question flawed conventional wisdom:
Tory MP Jason Kenney says the main reason is because crowd-manufacturing takes work, and our political types have decided it's not worth the hassle. "I think they're of limited utility," he says. "A lot of parties in Canada concluded they don't get much bang for the buck in terms of allocating scarce resources." Nor does the landscape encourage American-style rah-rah-rah. "Where would you go other than an arena in Canada — and if it's winter, where do you go unless it's a covered arena?" asks Liberal MP Joe Volpe. "You can count those on one hand and they're thousands of kilometres apart."

Elections are shorter in Canada, too, so events must be planned just days in advance. And while Volpe argues that large turnouts in the U.S. indicate a certain je ne sais quoi quality to Obama, others attribute them to massive election budgets. Our campaign finance laws discourage monster events, one Tory says, adding his party couldn't afford the $200,000 price tag attached to big rallies, given a budget of $18 million and a travel itinerary that costs $5 million. "Obama has an unlimited budget, so they can finance the advertising and venues and mailings it takes to organize something like that — these things don't happen spontaneously," says Kenney.

Friction between local candidates and the national parties in Canada can also rule out big crowds. Simple door-knocking is more likely to win an MP's seat than an appearance on TV with Steve or Stéphane. "In the U.S., you're not commanding all the people organizing the congressional campaigns to turn people out — they're different operations," says Liberal organizer Mark Marissen. "The people you call [here] are all in the riding campaigns — and they groan."
From what I can tell, the above includes a lot more excuse-making than genuine strategic thought.

Let's start first with the issue about the cost of a rally. While it's true that parties operate under a spending cap during campaign periods, there's nothing at all preventing them from holding events outside a campaign. And indeed, to the extent a party is able to both seek donations at an event and generate added enthusiasm to boost its volunteering and fund-raising capacity, it would seem qusetionable to consider rallies as pure costs rather than opportunities to boost a party's bottom line in the long run.

Now, that might well make for a genuine question of strategy. But it would seem to me to be one where the reward of getting thousands of people excited about one's party far exceeds the cost of a rally.

And that goes doubly during the course of a campaign, particularly when compared to the other possible uses of money. Sure, the cost of three or four large rallies could be spent putting a party's ads in slightly heavier rotation. But particularly given the ad saturation that tends to take place during a campaign, isn't it highly likely that a few well-televised rallies which show genuine widespread public support for a party would do far more to build the party's image than merely putting its top-down message in front of viewers a few more times? (And that's beyond the obvious person-to-person effect generated by those who actually attend the rallies.)

Finally, there's the question of whether riding associations will want to play along. But there too, the answer would seem to be an obvious "yes" if a party can actually generate an enthusiastic public response. Indeed, the attendees at a rally presumably reflect exactly the people which a riding association will want to add to its contact lists and get involved in the party going forward. And the process of holding a rally might make for the best opportunity to add them to the fold.

Of course, it's true that rallies would figure to be a relatively late step in building a party: it would indeed be impossible to assemble an Obama-style crowd without a substantial amount of behind-the-scenes work already being done. But if Canada's political parties aren't now capable of attracting large crowds, that seems to me to say more about their failure to fully engage the public than any limitation of rallies as a concept - and may signal that the first party to assemble the kind of movement which can pack arenas across the country will be the one best positioned to end the current political malaise.

(Edit: fixed typo.)