Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Watch Closely0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning (Sunday January 28, 2007 at 9:45 pm)

Voters in Canada have spent years either bowing out of voting or holding their breath and voting for the Liberals out of fear that the Conservatives (or the erstwhile Reform party). But now, there are workings afoot which could prove that what was laughably known as “strategic” voting may not be remotely necessary.

The theory behind strategic voting is that it is more important to keep party X from winning than it is to elect a party you want. This argument depends, in turn, that, one elected, a government will do anything it wants, without regard to future elections or public opinion.

Over time, this was a real boon for the Liberals, who relied on their role as poll-leaders to pick up voters keen to keep others out. Liberal candidates were often more likely to win than NDP candidates, meaning that boosting them could ensure the Tories’ defeat. Boosting the NDP raised the spectre of splitting the anti-Tory vote to let them come up the middle.

A potentially beneficial strategy, true; but one grounded in fear. Submitting to fear only makes your opponents’ task easier. Hope is the building block of civilization.

And what has happened of late should give hope to those who still believe in democracy.

Faced by an angry electorate and public furor over the environment, the Conservative government has begun to change its approach. They have reinstated programs they eliminated, and their opponents have not questioned the programs’ adequacy, merely the depth of the government’s commitment.

If then, public opinion and the threat of electoral loss can make a government change course; the underpinnings of strategic voting fall apart.

An interesting experiment then emerges — one to measure the mettle of voters. Will voters understand that information, and begin to make choices based on their hopes, or will they ignore it, and vote for their fears?

Just Plain Dumb0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Strategic Planning (Wednesday January 24, 2007 at 1:47 pm)

If you’re a scandal-ridden party trying to get past your history and climb your way back to legitimacy and government, there are a few words you should really avoid.

Stephane Dion, leader of the federal Liberal party, hasn’t quite realized this yet.

How else to explain his response to wholesale copying of Liberal policies by the government:

“Canadians will not be fooled,” Dion told his caucus as it met in Quebec City.

“They will know that there is something Mr. Harper cannot copy.

“It is the conviction, this conviction that we have as Liberals. Convictions about social justice in this country, about economic prosperity . here in Canada and abroad, the role of Canada in the world. This conviction will never be copied by Mr. Harper.”

Yeah. A party targetted for corruption is bragging about “conviction”. Careful, M. Dion. There’s no need to give the Tories easy targets.

Learning from the Lost0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, The Elephant (Monday January 22, 2007 at 2:48 pm)

Michael Ignatieff’s recent campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada had one important echo of his opponent, Gerard Kennedy’s campaign for Ontario’s Liberal leadership a decade earlier: hyperconfidence.

Overconfidence is a serious problem for people — it makes mistakes more likely. But hyperconfidence is a far more severe problem. It’s when you keep telling other people how confident you are.

The campaigns of these two men had one major feature in common: they were both frontrunners, so dubbed by press, poll, and party alike. Seizing on that strength, the men and their staff never failed to remind potential voters, party members, and the press of just how strong they were.

Every announcement of support from Ignatieff’s rivals drew his team’s hyperconfidence out: “We’ve got more than them, no matter what they say! You’ll see! You haven’t even seen what we’ve got yet!”

Which behaviour, in both cases, served only to harden the undeclared masses against them. Hyperconfidence looks to others like a strange combination of arrogance and boorishness; and few people are swayed by the prospect of following either recruiters who display it or the leaders whom they represent.

And the failure of these men’s campaigns, both starting from a base of over forty percent of the electorate, should be a signal to Hillary Clinton.

Having just announced her candidacy for the Presidency of the United States, and with early public polls showing her holding a substantial lead over her nearest rivals, Senator has some reason to be confident of her chances at taking the Democratic nomination.

But just like the men before her, a campaign which constantly reminds those outside her body of supporters of her strength is the surest way to ensure their alienation. In this respect her opening salvo, “I’m in to win,” is a dangerous beginning for her approach.

Polls that show her barely ahead of her chief rivals, Barack Obama and John Edwards, demonstrate how insubstantial such a lead can be. Moreso when one considers that candidates aren’t nominated nationwide, but by state. A commanding lead in New York and Florida may give her a strong showing in national polls, but when she moves from state to state, it won’t necessarily translate into the votes she needs to capture delegates.

That’s why Underdog should be her model, not Ubermensch.

The Long and the Short0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Gaia (Monday January 8, 2007 at 11:40 am)

As the other shoe drops, and the Tories’ sharpest cudgel brays sweet nothings about climate change, the problem with the Liberal plan to strike hard on the environment hits its second snag.

The Liberal record of inaction yields two problems:

  • Lacking the credibility to claim that they’re environmental stewards.
  • Lacking even the credibility to call the Tories johnny-come-latelies to the issue.

Which is not to say that it’s the wrong strategy. Far from it. It just may not be the strategy to win the next election. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not the right combination of sustainability in development and environmental care that mark the long-term road to success.

If they’re smart, they’ll work just as hard, but temper their expectations with the advice of their most successful leader:

It means Conservatives for a while, then a Liberal government with a longer lease on power after.*

*William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister, 1921-1930, 1934-1948, on hearing of R.B. Bennett’s victory in the 1930 general election

In Front and Behind0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Saturday January 6, 2007 at 4:01 pm)

If ever you’re called upon to explain the difference between Stephen Harper and Paul Martin, don’t feel compelled to read some well-written, lengthy tome. Just note this:

When Paul Martin needed a floor-crosser to secure upcoming votes, he promoted the member to his front bench.

When Stephen Harper needed a floor-crosser to secure upcoming votes, he didn’t.

Yes, yes. There’s the Emerson issue. But there’s a big difference there. Emerson crossed right after the election. There’s no reason to turn down help at any time, but Harper didn’t particularly need to avoid a confidence measure at the time. Regardless of the state of the Liberal Party’s leadership, there was no chance that the opposition parties wanted a third election in fewer years. Wajid Khan’s crossing came, like Belinda Stronach’s, in a time of need.

The Conservatives now have, with the NDP, a bare majority in the House. That means that if Harper’s plan to gain NDP support by sucking them into the reform of his Clean Air Act is successful, the government will gain a major victory on the environment, flattening Liberal leader Stephan Dion’s main sail. With the NDP willing to offer support, both to show their own usefulness and to beat the Liberals back on the issue, it just might work out.

Whether Belinda Stronach would have crossed with or without a Cabinet post, the optics of having an opposition member cross to sit as a back-bencher are much greater than having them cross to sit as a Minister.

And that’s the difference between Martin and Harper. In the same circumstances, Harper chooses the smarter path.

Ready for his Closeup?0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Thursday December 7, 2006 at 2:32 am)

It’s hard to deny that good local publicity makes a difference in Canadian politics. Was it mere coincidence that the Liberal Party’s disappearance from western relevance followed the election of the first western Conservative leader? That’s why no one should be surprised by an improvement in Liberal fortunes over the four days of their convention.

What should surprise people is the Tory response. Quebec lieutenant Lawrence Cannon suggested that he was ready and eager to take the spotlight himself:

Give me 48 hours of continuous exposure on television and I’ll probably be more popular than I am now.

Which would be the first indication of Conservative willingness to do that; and it’s been a problem since the beginning.

Of course it’s because they’re afraid of presenting something off-message; but there’s more harm in deferring that than there is in allowing it. Besides which, poor performance by government spokespeople at present likely has little to do with their quality (what qualification but experience does a senior minister really need). It’s more likely to do with the fact that Conservative ministers (1) have no practice and (2) are deathly afraid that a single wrong move will crush their careers.

The good news about the first is that it’s easy to deal with. Let them speak. Mistakes will be made, but they should be made early on — if the Liberal rebound in Quebec demonstrates anything, it is that all sins are eventually forgotten. The fact that Prime Minister Harper prefers to keep information on a tight leash hurts in two ways. It keeps his Cabinet in a perpetual political state of semi-competent neophytes; and it makes him seem aloof and domineering. While his control during the election was important, he was also making regular statements to the press. Control without contact just isn’t the same kind of clever tactic.

The good news about the second is that being fired for miscues can be temporary. Again, all sins are eventually forgotten.

It’s doing nothing that’s irredeemable.

Lessons Learned0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Saturday December 2, 2006 at 6:07 pm)

What did the Wonk learn from the Leadership Convention results?

Scott Brison and Joe Volpe still have no political sense.

Ken Dryden wants to be in politics, but isn’t sure what for.

Gerrard Kennedy has the eerie power to command absolute loyalty.

The Liberals haven’t yet figured out that it’s not about beating Harper — it’s about winning Canadians over.

What Liberals Want0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Wednesday November 8, 2006 at 10:43 pm)

The Frosty Wonk’s talked about the special pitfalls of modern leadership contests before, but one point wasn’t really touched on: policy.

At times like this, when an ebb in fortunes coincides with both new leadership and calls for renewal, the leadership can be the weakest political link. Why?

It’s a simple problem: preaching to the choir.

Trying to attract party stalwarts isn’t all there is to a modern leadership campaign, but the candidate’s appeal is to a rank-and-file who, on the whole, are there to defend their values. When the party’s riding low and almost back to its base of support, those values don’t likely represent a winning coalition of voters.

Which is nothing more than saying that a winning electoral strategy can’t be built solely by appealing to your own base. You must reach out for other voters and other votes. That means developing policies which may worry the party membership — at least at first.

While the leadership candidates pay lip service both to the party and to their electoral viability, the reality of the contest means that satisfying the party comes first. In circumstances where the party is struggling to find itself politically, there’s a tendency to self-righteous navel-gazing.

Contrary, then, to what some pundits have suggested, Michael Ignatieff’s greatest strength really is his independent-mindedness:

Taking a strong position isn’t any good if it’s a position Liberals and Canadians don’t want you to take. It always amazed me how Ignatieff supporters will justify any stand of his they don’t agree with - “sure, I don’t agree with his stand on the Iraq war, but it was because of his bond with the Kurds”, “I don’t think Quebec is a nation, but his heart is in the right place”, “yeah, I’m not big on his puppy genocide policy, but at least he’s taking a strong stand”. It’s alright to say you disagree with your candidate on a policy topic and still think his other positives (and despite all this, Ignatieff still has a lot of positives) outweigh the policy differences.

It is a bad sign when Canadians disagree en masse, but choosing some policies involves rejecting others, which always results in offending someone. The politics lies in finding the right combination to maximize your support. One of the Liberals’ greatest mistakes under Martin was the party’s growing fear of displeasing anyone. Hence Mr. Dithers, worthless but high-visibility spending, and carefully-scripted foreign trips. Perhaps it was an effort to shake off the image of a strong-minded predecessor, but that didn’t cut the electoral mustard. It’s time for them to make tough choices.

But while Canadians at large are a good measure of likely policy, Liberals aren’t right now. The party hasn’t completed its renewal process, leaving it without the new direction it’s supposed to be working from. The government’s declining popularity gives the Liberals hope that things might be just fine as they are, reducing the incentive for change. And when you’re still searching for your vision, choosing it by reaction to the government isn’t good enough.

Is the “nation” issue the wrong one? Yes. But that’s not the point here. The point is the danger in seeking self-satisfaction when you want other people to come along. If the Liberals are satisfied with fighting with the NDP and waiting for the Tories to screw up so they can try their hand at a minority government, then there’s no reason to change anything. Some people might have thought they’d have a bit more in the way of aspirations.

Playing Along0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Gaia (Monday November 6, 2006 at 10:24 pm)

The NDP, sensing Liberal efforts to steal their turf, have responded in superb fashion.

The NDP offered what looks like productive help. The key? The NDP knows the government can’t accept it. By making a positive, helpful gesture, they compel the government to draw attention to its fear of disapproval over its environmental policy and thus, tacitly admit that the policy isn’t saleable. The Liberals, a day late, and a dollar short, rush to say “Me, too!” as surely as the NDP previously copied Liberal strategies.

But being first with the gesture garners the NDP extra credit. And as they’re coming up with ways to make things right, they look productive, which goes a long way with voters looking for a solution. As the environment looms larger as an issue, it’s likely that there’s some chance to get a bit of extra traction. By making a positive effort to work with the party in power, the NDP show that they’re not only trustworthy standard-bearers for the environment, but standard-bearers willing to work with others to get the job done. After-the-fact Liberal claims that their offer was more suitable drown in the same indifference to the niceties of Parliamentary procedure that brought them plaudits for pro-Kelowna legislation.

The ability to work with either likely governing party is what Jack Layton’s selling; and it’s hard to turn that down if ideological purity and committment to a policy is your preference. Moreover, it’s not something the Liberals can really market. This is why the NDP under Layton has consistently maintained the 15%+ level of support they hadn’t enjoyed since 1988 under Ed Broadbent.

It’s why the Liberals can’t compete with the NDP for their share of the electorate. They’ve got to go after the big target: Conservative support. While their private member’s bill was a good effort at a positive message, its likely target, environmentally-minded voters, probably aren’t among Tory supporters to begin with; and the Liberals lack the street cred to swipe NDP and Green support on the environment.

It’s a good model for the Liberals to follow; but this isn’t their issue; and playing nicely with others doesn’t win you the big prize: a majority. It’s a different game that the Liberals need to play, and chasing the littlest kid on the Parliamentary block isn’t the way to get there.

Running in Place0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Gaia (Tuesday October 31, 2006 at 11:10 pm)

The Liberal Party of Canada, still convinced that their credibility on Kyoto is crucial to defeating the perennial also-ran New Democrats in the next election, are on the attack.

His usual two-step of borrowing others’ ideas and buffing credentials with left-wing voters has brought NDP Leader Jack Layton to his latest pas: introducing a private member’s bill (borrowed from recent Liberal successes) to establish periodic review and standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

While Mr. Layton’s efforts are notable for their attempt to capitalize on recent coverage of other private member’s bills, it seems unlikely to be more than a holding action. As the Green Party’s credibility builds, the NDP will find it harder to keep their environmentally-minded constituency. Since recent events have given a lustre of positive action to the normally humdrum private member’s bill, it’s a good move for Layton.

But standing pat on the environment isn’t a strategic issue for the Liberal Party. There’s little question that the Liberals have more credibility than the Tories on environmental issues; but as it’s unlikely that those who choose based on environmental issues vote for Conservatives, there’s little to gain from the Liberals’ primary opponents by building credibility.

The only strategic hope for burnishing the party’s Kyoto credentials is therefore to swipe potential NDP votes; and that’s not a great plan. Layton has attacked the Liberals before, and Kyoto is an issue on which the Liberals have no real credibility and several weak points. Beyond the old standby of “Why didn’t you do anything while you were in office?”, Layton can now rely on the auditor-general’s report and the fact that it was under the Liberals that Canada failed to meet specific Kyoto requirements which could trigger future problems.

When your opponent has that kind of armament to wield, it’s wise not to get into that fight. It’s all well and good to trot out a government minister to buttress a point, but the Liberals no longer have Ministers at their disposal. Fighting over environmental voters with the NDP isn’t going to sway them — especially since they’re likely to be well-educated enough on the issue to be impervious to Liberal efforts to muddy the waters (like this recent attack). Besides which, it’s not clear that the small group of voters who put the environment first but know very little about environmental policies are enough to make a significant impact at the polls.

Fighting over the NDP’s polling scraps isn’t the way for the Liberals to retake the House. If it worked, it might shift a dozen or so seats, but it could let Tories come up the middle in as many seats as Liberals could win. If the Liberals really want to get into fighting trim on environmental issues, they need to stay well away from provoking the one party with the credibility and will to protect their constituency. They’re not the ones who should be struggling to stand still.

Consider Reconsidering0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Monday October 30, 2006 at 11:15 pm)

For Liberals who bravely cheered Paul Martin’s hail Mary during the 2006 election, Michael Ignatieff’s pledge to open constitutional negotiations with no more directed aim than recording Quebec’s nationhood in the unbending stone of the written Constitution is divine nectar. But, setting criticism of the plan’s inherent wisdom aside, consider what this latest news means for its most urgent function: winning votes.

Since the Ignatieff-heavy Quebec wing of the party demanded the change (sparking suspicion that the resolution was pushed through largely to prove the extent of Ignatieff’s command of Quebec), it must be considered at the same nationwide convention at which Liberals will choose their new standard-bearer. Suddenly, the candidates are rushing to avoid the spectre of such consideration:

There appear to be several options available to the party. It is possible to amend a resolution in the smaller workshops, or to not designate it as a “priority” to be moved forth for debate on the full floor. A resolution may also be amended on the convention floor, providing there is enough support for such a change, a senior Liberal told the Star.

Why, do you ask? It’s not just the haunting problem of a party emerging from a leadership convention deeply wounded by a divisive policy debate. Given how controversial the issue really is, it shines brightly enough to compete with the main event. When you’re trying to maximize publicity of the new leader, you really don’t want to have constitutional scholars clogging up the media with analysis of plenary discussions.

And yes, it is controversial. Ignatieff defends his plan:

“Other candidates have said … recognizing Quebec as a nation in the Constitution is too difficult,” Ignatieff said in that [the Quebec City] debate. “Yes, it’s difficult, but we must do it. Otherwise, what alternative are we offering against (Prime Minister) Harper’s status quo and the Bloc’s politics of fantasy?

And yet, his staff suggest shelving it:

“All of the candidates agree that now is not the time for constitutional discussions,” said Ignatieff’s national director of policy and Internet strategy, Brad Davis.

Controversial, it seems, even within his campaign, since this couldn’t possibly be another example of the equivocation Iggy never does. But a few questions are worth asking:

Why introduce a policy in such a way as to potentially upstage yourself?

Why recommend constitutional amendment if you agree that it’s the wrong time for it?

Why propose policy likely to alienate a large portion of your party while trying to unite it after a bitter feud?

Who could possibly recommend a candidate with the political clumsiness to do the above?

Slippage Theory0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Friday October 27, 2006 at 10:31 pm)

One of the biggest question marks in any multiple-round vote has to do with loyalty. Not the kind of loyalty that keeps people behind a candidate, either — that’s relatively rare. It’s the kind of loyalty that keeps people behind a former candidate when he or she decides to call it quits. Then, faced with the fact that their chosen one is no longer an option, they must decide whether to follow him no matter whose side he moves to or find their own way.

It’s an especially difficult question in leadership contests. Failed candidates try to maximize their strength by moving to potential winners. By carrying their supporters with them, they bolster their choice’s chances and their own. But if supporters aren’t loyal, the move means little in the end.

Which is why Bob Richardson is right and wrong about the prospects of coalitions among the lower-ranked campaigns in the Liberal leadership race. He’s right to point out that two early dropouts weren’t able to carry their supporters with them. He’s wrong when he suggests that this means that movement among camps at this point will be equally ineffective.

The difference is simple. Bevilacqua and Fry dropped out of the race prior to the delegate selection, meaning that their supporters had not yet been transmuted into that gold of conventions: delegates. So when they moved to other campaigns, their scant support was a meagre offering at best. What they had were a few organizers and some hundreds of members, worthless without the organizers to control them.

We’re no longer talking about the control of thousands of members across hundreds of ridings. We’re talking about the control of hundreds of delegates. Delegates aren’t merely members — they’re members who’ve committed to attending the convention to support a particular candidate. That already makes them different from a member at large; and believing that they’re as open-minded and prone to wander as regular members is a mistake.

Just as important, the number of organizers needed to control those delegates is significantly smaller than those needed to mobilize and control the thousands of members used to elect them. As a result, bleed of supporters isn’t as significant. And just as there is a difference between members-at-large and delegates, there’s a difference between organizers-at-large and convention organizers. The latter are chosen to work in the rarified air of a noisy convention floor.

Which means that the supporters who matter at this point won’t be as footloose as those who went before; and not just because they’re with campaigns that have real chances of making the grade. The idea that mergers will only shake delegates loose to be drawn, mothlike to the Ignatieff lamp was implausible before the candidate’s spate of overweening gaffes. At this point it’s wishful thinking. Some will go that way, no question. But that kind of shedding won’t be what puts any candidate over the edge in this contest.

Home to Roost0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Gaia, Brass Tacks (Thursday October 26, 2006 at 5:30 pm)

Some weeks ago, the opposition used one of its areas of cohesion in an attempt to embarrass the government. A Liberal backbencher’s private member’s bill which would, if enacted, compel the government to implement the Kyoto protocol, passed first reading in the House, sending it to the committee stage.

Why an attempt to embarrass rather than to embrace Kyoto? Not because the parties in question had ample opportunity to embrace it during their term in office — that’s just cynical. It was an attempt to embarrass because any fool with a basic knowledge of Parliamentary procedure would realise that the government could block the bill by any number of delaying tactics if it posed a real threat to its plans.

So why should parties sophisticated enough to bring about such a subtle plot act surprised when the Tories do just as expected? Do they think that throwing blame over legislative stalling resonates with voters other than their own supporters?

When the Tories block opposition legislation with the expected filibusters, they’re not being negative. When the opposition parties complain, they are. Negativity doesn’t sell, period. It makes Parliament itself look bad, and that takes all parties down.

If it was the opposition’s plan to bring things to the brink and make the government fight, they’re forgetting that the last election wasn’t won by brinksmanship — it was won by positive presentations in the space opened by the brinksmanship. Demonizing isn’t just cheap politics. It’s bad politics, especially when you have an upper hand to play. What about:

We will continue to work our hardest to keep this legislation moving forward. The environment is too important to compromise, and no matter what roadblocks the government tries to put up, we’ll keep pressing them on this bill.

Is that too hard to figure out, or is it just too hard to rise above the fray? Canadians have already heard about the government’s aloofness from the press; and those who care aren’t going to care more because you repeat it, as Jack Layton chose to:

He [Stephen Harper] has an arrogant and controlling attitude to his caucus, to the media, to the Canadian public, and also to the representatives (in opposition) of a majority of the Canadian people.

Yes, the press asks lots of questions; and sure, they’re going to try to get you riled up into saying something of this kind. The mark of a good politician, though, is turning that to advantage, rather than harping on a point fully digested by the public. It’s an arrogant mistake to believe that those who still disagree with you do so solely because they haven’t heard your message yet. It might be that they don’t care about your message; and if so, they don’t want to hear you complain about it.

Which is why repeating positives is better for you than the alternative. The initial decision to work on the private member’s bill was just such a positive, and the government’s stalling drew enough attention to it to repeat it. Under those circumstances, why go the other way?

Getting It0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Hats Off, Gentlemen (Friday October 20, 2006 at 4:35 am)

The anti-creationist lobby often reacts to their opponents by labelling them as backwards-looking; but in general, the problem is that things are the other way around. While studies of evolution focus on reviewing fossil records and the results of testing, creationists educate, inculcate, and elect in hopes of furthering those same aims in future. Only too late, it seems, do the guardians of the scientific legacy realise that they have been outmanoeuvered, politically speaking.

Which is why 2003 Nobel Laureate Peter C. Agre, MD’s appearance on October 19th on the Colbert Report deserves more praise than can easily be offered. Dr. Agre made two suggestions, each of which illustrate how well he understands both the nature of the challenge confronting the scientific community and the nature of the solution:

People must read more. . .of everything
A narrow background breeds narrow thought. It’s not enough for scientists to focus on their own disciplines, any more than it is for others to ignore the likes of biology and chemistry. Not only does a broader mind stand a better chance of dealing with emerging challenges — it’s also less likely simply to follow others’ lead. That’s good for everyone, and a powerful reminder that professional focus and broad erudition aren’t mutually exclusive. Agre’s selections of Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson are great places to start.
A Nobel Prize is worth two weeks of broadcast time
Agre made the bold offer to hand over his Nobel in exchange for 10 of the Colbert Report’s half-hour timeslots. Few better opportunities exist to reach a broad audience; and understanding that taking science public is the best way to ensure political support is exactly where scientific proponents have been falling behind. Kudos to the good Doctor for catching the political implications — further kudos for making the bid.

Which translates into a simple proposition: Dr. Agre is a scientist with some impressive political sense. For the sake of his cause, let’s hope others follow his lead.

Everything New is Old Again0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check, Strategic Planning (Saturday October 7, 2006 at 10:14 pm)

For those still so dazzled by technology that they haven’t lost faith in the “new economy”, John Harris of the Washington Post has a very flashy trinket on offer. In a week that’s already seen one forgetful recreation of past failures, Harris is as confident as a huckster economist in 1999 that new technology means new rules and a new game.

A number of recent political scandals, Harris says, have originated in the world of “new media” before moving into newspapers and television — the more “traditional” outlets. He points to three recent stories: George Allen’s “macaca” remark, captured by a cameraman paid by his opponent, Jim Webb; Mark Foley’s flirtation with Congressional pages; and Bill Clinton’s interview cum debate.

Supposedly, these stories include an “arresting personal angle”. And since Bill Clinton’s interview was broadcast on Fox News, the “new media” of Harris’s vision lumps web reporting together with television. All that makes it “new”, it would seem, is that it was recently established; and that’s enough, according to Harris, to make it something novel:

Cumulatively, the stories highlight a new brand of politics in which nearly any revelation in the news becomes a weapon or shield in the daily partisan wars, and the aim of candidates and their operatives is not so much to win an argument as to brand opponents as fundamentally unfit.

Which is enough to give any reader with a memory longer than a goldfish pause. When was it, exactly, that winning arguments was the primary aim of political campaigning? Lincoln’s famous debates with Douglas lost him the Senatorial election but won him the Presidential election two years later. Which election was about winning the argument and which about losing?

But more importanty, what’s so new about attacking the competence of one’s opponents? Has Harris never heard of the daisy commercial from Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Presidential campaign suggesting Goldwater wasn’t the man to manage nuclear tensions? What about the 1993 Tory commercial hinting that Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis made him a poor choice to represent Canada abroad? What about the Ontario slogan in 1999: “Dalton McGuinty: He’s Just Not Up to the Job”? Perhaps he paid no attention to the allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, suggesting that his personal behaviour made him a bad choice to make legal judgements? He might be forgiven for being unaware of the fact that homosexuality was added to the charges against Edward II of England, or that accusations of personal immorality were common weapons in classical political life.

But no, focusing on personal attacks at the expense of policy arguments really is a new wave in politics. How easily the eye can be blinded by a bit of fiber optics and more of the same old, same old.

Out of Nowhere. Heading back that way?0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, Hats Off, Gentlemen, Gaia (Thursday October 5, 2006 at 2:03 am)

After months of watching the government run Parliamentary circles around an opposition whose own strategy was remedial, at best, an observer might have had cause to wonder whether there were any experienced MPs on the opposition benches at all. Today’s vote, sending a private member’s bill to committee, proves that there are.

Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez’s Bill, C-288, has the potential to embarass the government by:

  • Requiring an annual account of measures to be taken to meet Kyoto objectives
  • Requiring Cabinet to enact legislation as necessary to implement those measures

C-288 is unlikely to become law for two reasons. Private members’ bills can be easily blocked by extending debate on government bills or Ministerial speeches or eliminated by opening a new Parliamentary session. Given that bills are randomly drawn for consideration from a large pool of potential legislation, it’s unlikely that a replacement bill would make it as far again. Second, while most of its provisions only require drafting of regulations, the requirement that the annual account include:

(iii) spending or fiscal measures or incentives

Is something the government may try to qualify as requiring public expenditure. If so, it can’t become law without an accompanying Royal Recommendation, which only the government can provide. The opposition will argue that this clause only requires the reporting of such measures where taken by the government without actually requiring the expenditure itself. The opposition will have the better of that argument.

Most importantly for the Liberals, the passage of this bill through first reading provides distraction from the auditor-general’s report on their own environmental record, and will, they hope, sap some momentum from the Tories’ public musings over environmental proposals to be named later.

But there’s a problem with this approach. While it’s guaranteed to accomplish those goals short-term, there isn’t much in it for a sustainable attack; and while forestalling government momentum is good politics, the Liberals are still in sore need of something positive to displace it. Besides which, the Tories’ public musings are just that — musings. There will be announcements of the actual program to come, and the Liberals won’t be able to brandish this vote a second time.

No doubt, the Liberal hope for a proposal rests on the outcome of their leadership contest; but Messianic leadership didn’t produce this success, and if the work of a near-rookie member, backed by an experienced caucus can have such successes, it’s not really a question of getting ideas from the leader. It’s a question of getting someone who can work with the strength already there.

Shockingly Routine0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Monday September 25, 2006 at 2:28 pm)

Some saw Liberal leadership candidate Joe Volpe’s latest scandal as evidence of his campaign’s lack of ethics and his personal unsuitability for leadership. Those folks just haven’t been paying attention. These conclusions have been hard to question since early June.

What the emergence of details of “phoney” memberships attributed to Volpe in Quebec and the subsequent allegations of similar abuses by the Ignatieff campaign in Toronto prove is how meaningless the party’s earlier pledges to clamp down on the abuses which characterized previous races were.

If the system were working (or even capable of doing so), it wouldn’t take complaints by those improperly enrolled to draw the party’s attention. It’s simply implausible to suggest that the party can ensure payments come from the private individuals alleged without contacting them directly and personally through impartial party staff.

There are just two problems with such a scheme. There’s no reason why those contacted couldn’t lie, especially if they’re drawn from the large group of potential members who don’t care about the party but have a load of fun at the sponsored drinking events. Enrolling the dead might be more problematic, but a fake contact could always claim the missing member was “out of the country”. Without a serious tracking effort, these meagre efforts would stymie any attempt to validate memberships.

And those attempts are the other problem. Most impartial party officials, like unicorns, were drowned in the Biblical flood. If you don’t believe in the Bible, what makes you believe in impartial political officials? Most full-time operators get their posts by being connected with power brokers in the party. Many are elected in circumstances similar to the leadership process (and often connected with it). That’s just one reason to doubt Quebec riding officials’ claims that abuses were limited to a single candidate’s campaign.

Simply put, it’s no surprise that rules are being broken. The party has become experienced at thundering speech, signifying nothing. And that’s just what’s been done to deal with underlying problems. Even if those problems could be solved, the system encourages a “race to the bottom”, where the advantage to be gained by breaking the rules means that no serious candidate can risk not doing so.

All of which goes to show why another purported violation is about as meaningful as the word “impartial” to the leadership race. Polls of members and membership lists don’t much matter when the members really don’t have control. Masses of undead voters and disinterested, easily-bought instant members can do that. The fact that Ignatieff is tied for first place among “members” doesn’t mean he can’t still produce a share of elected delegates wildly disproportionate from that of his top competitor.

The party’s claim that it must protect members’ privacy rings hollow for similar reasons. The distribution of that information through the party is too broad to reasonably believe that any degree of privacy can be maintained. Volunteers and hired call centres alike will have access to name and contact information — and neither is scrutinized heavily by the party. Merely making leadership candidates responsible for leaks isn’t going to stop them from relying on either; and it’s hard to believe that, in such circumstances, they will realy be in a position to control abuses.

The real reason why the release of lists is such a serious violation is that it might compromise the party itself. What might the media discover, given the means to verify the party’s alleged memberships and the guts to unveil the abuses that the party’s purportedly democratic process allow to violate its essential quality?

But would the public care? Probably not. Unethical behaviour in politics is something they consider routine; and it is, despairingly, to them that it falls to demand more.

Prologue — Bases Unloaded0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Thursday September 21, 2006 at 10:57 pm)

With the first real signs of the result of the Liberal Party of Canada’s Leadership campaign imminent, there’s good reason to revisit what’s at stake. For Liberals warming to the idea that they might retake Parliament sooner than expected, it’s important to think about how to do just that; and that task demands that they know where they stand.

Electoral support comes in two flavours: base and bonus. Base supporters are groups who feel so deep a connection with a party that their support tends to follow the party from election to election. Bonus supporters are attracted to a party by the position they assume by siding with it in a given election, whether because they identify with policies or want to distinguish themselves from other parties. Elections focus on both groups, but in different ways.

It’s virtually impossible to change your base during a campaign, but it is possible to motivate them. If you can get them excited enough about your chances, they become more likely to vote and encourage others on your behalf. If you alienate them, they’re likely to sit out.

Bonus voters are where there’s an opportunity to make real gains in support during a campaign. A masterful riposte during a debate, a well-chosen policy, or serious gaffes can turn these voters quickly; and without loyal starting positions, they may shift alleigances many times before the race is run.

Obviously, it’s easier to win with a large base than with lots of bonus voters. What isn’t so easy is building a base large enough to make it that much easier. The more people you add to your supporters, the harder it becomes to reconcile some differences and put off making choices between competing groups on others. Building a base means careful work over time, both in government and out. That’s why being in “campaign mode” while in government may or may not be a valid criticism. Campaigning to motivate the base isn’t very useful in office. But campaigning to fold other groups into your base is the most politically useful thing you can do. The problem is that it’s not the same kind of campaign you fight to win them over, come election time.

But enough of the obvious. Why all the fuss? It’s crucial to understanding where the Liberals now stand. So is looking back a bit.

In two elections against Brian Mulroney, the Liberal Party took around 30% of the popular vote. In 1993, the Liberals began the election polled at around 37%, not far from either the Tory total or their performance in the previous election (31%). Most interestingly, while Tory support dwindled in polls from 35% to 16%, Liberal suport rose only to 41%. While 4% of difference, concentrated in Eastern Canada, was enough to assure them of a commanding 177 seats in the 295 seat House of Commons, the Bloc Quebecois nearly doubled and the Reform Party more than doubled that theft of support, rising by 6% and 9% respectively.

Equally telling in 1993, though, was the decline in voter turnout from previous campaigns. From 1957 onward, only two elections drew less than three quarters of voters: Trudeau’s 1974 and 1980 Liberal majority governments, both of which came within two years of the previous election. Voter turnout dropped from 75.3% in 1988 to 70.9% in 1993. Had voter turnout remained roughly constant, the Tory base should have grown by 450,000 voters. That number, 3.2% of the total votes cast, couldn’t have defeated the Liberals (even if it remained loyal), but is so close to the growth in Liberal support during the campaign that it should illustrate the significance of demotivating your base, assuming that these were mostly alienated Tory voters.

1997 saw a further 3.9% decline in voter turnout, leading to nearly 700,000 fewer votes being cast than during the previous election — nearly the precise total lost by the Liberals in going from 5,647,952 to 4,994,277. The Liberals stood pat in British Columbia (six), Prince Edward Island (four), and the Northwest Territories (two), gained six seats in Quebec, and lost seats in every other province save one. While the Liberal total increased by three seats in Ontario, that province gained four seats in that election, meaning that proportionately, the party took fewer seats than in 1993.

The 1997 losses were largely ascribed to the public outcry over the Liberals’ failure to remove the hated Goods and Services Tax — widely regarded as the most important of their 1993 campaign promises. The correlation between the decline in turnout and in Liberal support would tend to support that conclusion. Moreso when you consider that the Liberal total would have been within about 5% of the same total vote had their supporters increased in line with the general population from 1988 to 1997.

Most of the Liberals’ gains retained in 1997 could therefore be attributed to natural growth of their base, and most of their loss to the loss of bonus voters gained in 1993, attracted to a position opposing the Tories and the GST alike. This is especially likely considering that the GST question was more an incidental policy than a central aspect of the party. But notice two things. The expected growth in the base accounted for almost all of the Liberals’ retained voters from 1993, suggesting that the Liberals either took little advantage of the opportunity to expand their base, or did, and alienated part of their existing base in the process. More importantly, though, there was no indication that the 5% of voters who failed to show in 1993 had returned.

The 2000 election provided the Liberals with an excellent opportunity to regain ground. They were faced with a clownish and unskilled opposition leader, who provided significant political fodder even for non-partisan observers. The Liberal vote grew, but only by 250,000 votes or so to 5,252,031. That growth is more significant when considering that turnout declined once more, falling by 2.9%.

But capturing a larger share of a smaller pie when confronted with lackluster opposition doesn’t inspire much confidence. The Liberals gained only eleven seats from party standings just prior to the election, of which eight came from recovery of seats in the Maritimes. Only three provinces posted real seat gains — one apiece in Saskatchewan and the Yukon (not technically a province, true) and the remainder in Quebec.

Most importantly, more voters had been alienated, though not only by Liberals, and those voters frightened into voting Liberal by the prospect of a Creationist Prime Minister might just have come from the New Democrats’ stock of bonus voters. That party lost roughly 300,000 votes between elections, largely in the Maritimes, where the Liberals picked up most seats, while the combined totals of the Alliance and rump Progressive Conservatives lost 170,000.

In short, the Liberals relied on bonus voters again in 2000, showing no evidence of real growth in their base constituency over the previous twelve years. This lack of growth becomes all the more important when considering that the total number of eligible voters grew by 1.6 Million between 1997 and 2000.

And now, the interesting parts.

In 2004, voter turnout dropped to the lowest ebb in Canadian history, to 60.9%. Nevertheless, the total number of voters rose, due to the continuing growth of the electorate.

In those circumstances, and faced with the fallout of the sponsorship scandal in Quebec, the Liberals lost 33 seats and majority status, but lost only about as many votes (300,000) as they’d gained in 2000. What happened? Had the turnout been as low in 2000, 570,000 fewer votes would have been cast. Consider that the PC party was merged with the Alliance to create the new Tory party.

The PCs polled 1.6 Million votes in 2000, and the Alliance 3.2 Million. In 2004, the “combined” total came to 3.9 Million — a gain of 720,000. Combine that with the fact that the Green party gained 480,000 votes, and the possibility of alienated PC and Liberal voters sitting the campaign out helps to explain the drop in turnout. Once again, Liberal electoral support didn’t drift very far from earlier results.

Everything changed in 2006. Voter turnout rose by four percent — this was the first election to meet and exceed the number of votes cast in 1993 (by roughly 1 Million votes — exactly the growth in the Tory vote over their take in 2004), despite over a decade of population growth in the intervening three elections. And the Liberal vote total declined by nearly half a million.

It’s almost certain that the Liberals picked up few additional bonus voters in 2006 — their polls showed declining support; but more significantly, the numbers suggest little growth in the base. The voting population grew by 29.5% between 1988 and 2006. Had the Liberal numbers grown at a comparable rate, they would have taken 5.4 Million votes in 2006, a much more competitive result.

Stop for a moment and think about that. In 1988, the Liberals trailed badly and lost. Had they been only as popular among the general voting population in 2006 as they had been in 1988 (that is — losers), they would have done better by nearly a million votes. That’s not good. The increase in votes cast roughly matched the Tory gains. The rebound in voter turnout did nothing for the Liberals.

All of which is not to suggest that all 4.2 Million Liberal voters in 1988 were base support — they were, of course, a combination of base and bonus voters. The point is that the Liberals were the only party with a degree of continuity over that time, which could have been an opportunity to work on their base.

Impossible? Certainly not — Mackenzie King began an era of Liberal government in 1921 that was interrupted only twice — by a two-month Conservative government in 1926 and a narrow loss at the outset of the depression in 1930 — until it ended in 1957 — a span of 36 years over which the growth in Liberal votes regularly outperformed the growth in overall voting population.

Twice the length of time? True. But 1988-2006 was both a long enough stretch and a large enough change in the number of voters (+30%) to expect more growth in Liberal numbers than 10% or so from a fundamentally worse performance in 1988 (83 seats of 295 in 1988 versus 103 seats of 308 in 2006). The degree of stability over the 36-year span was comparable to that over the 18-year span. There is no evidence of growth in the Liberal base, and much evidence of relying on poor opposition and demonised opponents to swing bonus voters to their position. Short term, that can be a successful strategy. Long-term it’s a recipe for a drawn-out and gradual death.

And that’s what the Liberals have to worry about. The idea that drooping poll numbers for the Tories will translate into a Liberal chance at forming government will dangerously distract party members from the hard question: what should we do to grow our base?

Leadership contests aren’t good opportunities for that kind of discussion because they’re so highly focused on an appeal to the existing base. Moving from that to a snap election won’t help things any. As Liberals move towards choosing the delegates who will vote for their next leader, they need to consider how to grow the party, not simply how to attract a few bonus voters in 2007 or 2008.

Working on building the base could ultimately lead the party back to the easier dominance it had in its glory days, rather than into another sequence of lurching and desperate elections. The first question for Liberals, then, should not be changed to “how do we win the next election” in the light of favorable short-term polling. It must still be “how do we grow our base again,” if they’re serious about political power.

39:1 Take 2 In P-4: Crime0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Thursday September 14, 2006 at 10:37 pm)

We’ve already seen the early rumblings of the government’s intended approach to the new Parliamentary session. Senate reform is only the first prong of their likely attack on public and media attention to less-popular issues (Afghanistan, anyone?)

Senate reform is certain to burnish the party’s already strong credentials in Western Canada; and because theirplan doesn’t threaten to disrupt the allocation of seats, it might succeed in drawing in a few more Easterners. But it’s not likely to be a big enough distraction from environmental and foreign policy questions to make a significant impact on its own.

The next likely step is one of the most traditional bastions of Conservative support — crime. The Conservatives had already made law-and-order one of their five priorities, but most of the legislation intended to put their plans into action still has two passes to make through the Commons. At present, there are seven bills on tap:

C-9: Conditions on Conditional Sentences
Right now, when a crime has no minimum mandatory sentence and the court passes a sentence of less than two years, the court can order the sentence to be served outside of prison, subject to any restrictions and probation it deems necessary. This bill will eliminate that option for crimes with maximum sentences of ten years or more. While that category includes conspiracy to commit murder and several terrorism-related charges (which are quite rare), it also includes failure to guard ice-fishing holes and anal sex (which are rarely tried). It is hard to believe that the change will have much impact on crime, but it will likely result in a few hundred more imprisonments per annum, mostly for unremarkable offences.
C-10: Making Gun Crimes Illegaller
The Tories bill this number as an attack on gun crime by imposing mandatory minimum sentences. In truth, every crime affected by the bill already has mandatory minimum sentences. What the bill really does is create higher minimum sentences for repeat offenders, mostly in the case of a range of crimes related to the possession of guns, although it notably affects the use of a firearm in attempted murder or other indictable offences. It also creates two new indictable offences: breaking and entering and robbery for the purpose of obtaining a firearm. Did someone really suggest that Canadian gangs or disturbed murderers weigh potential criminal liability before going on shooting sprees in urban environments?
C-19: Street Racing Be Gone!
In the wake of increased anecdotal coverage, street racing briefly appeared on the news radar of suburbanites nationwide. The government’s response, strategically modelled on the Harris squeegee laws, creates a new crime for street racing and bans convicted street-racers from the roads after their sentences. The Fast and the Furious 3 didn’t draw enough box office to justify higher mandatory minimum sentences for drift racers.
C-21: De Registry
A project which plays well to the rural base but poorly to cities, this bill plays the unconcerned yin to C-19’s hyperactive yang by removing registration requirements for firearms which are neither prohibited nor restricted. Mostly, it means that long-barreled shotguns will no longer require registration certificates. Considering that the only way the previous government was able to enforce the requirement was by eating the registration fees, this is an eminently practical bill. Most of the crimes pointed to by supporters of the registry had mostly to do with non-registration and little or nothing to do with dangerous crime.
C-22: Thinking of the Children
Those young folks need their protection, and that’s what C-22 is intended to provide. The bill applies the most serious category of sexual crimes perpetrated on children to those committed against children up to the age of 16, rather than 14. Along with that,it alters the range of permissible age difference between young sexual partners.
C-23: Administrative Action!
If you like smorgassboard, youll adore bill C-23, a hodgepodge of modifications tossed together. Where else can you see highly technical modifications to evidentiary rules? Amid parts not fit for popular consumption, though, are a few more significant points: extending illegal gambling to cover online gambling, changing possession of car-jacking equipment from an indictable to a summary conviction offence, authorizing orders prohibiting offenders from communicating with victims, and changing the maximum fine for summary conviction offences to $10,000 from $2,000.
S-3: Uniformity
The existing national registry for those convicted of sexual offences does not extend to members of the armed forces convicted of like offences under military law. When this passes, it will.

So what’s it all mean? The Tories have already indicated that, despite recent events in Quebec, they intend to proceed with the elimination of the gun registry. Premier Charest of Quebec plans to fight the move. Right or wrong, the combination will make the change more unpopular in Quebec and Ontario at the least, and infeasible if Quebec links the registry to its support for Harper’s planned Senate reforms.

The conditional sentence, gun crime tweaks, anti-racing provisions, age of protection changes, and gag on offenders will all play with the likely target group: suburbanites. The government came within a few thousand votes in a smattering of seats scattered around Toronto — in addition to securing rural support, targeting announcements in those locations could firm up a bit of support for them.

But will it counteract the effect of the Montreal shooting? That seems unlikely in an area which chose Liberals in 2004 as the best party to fight crime. Ultimately, the Conservatives don’t need to burnish their image on law-and-order issues. Outside of Toronto, they’re the party voters concerned with the issue are likeliest to choose. Within Toronto, their inability to woo voters with the issue must flow from a different perspective on crime. Either way, there’s not much political mileage to be had from what is a significant share of the legislative agenda ahead.

Playing at Politics0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Sunday September 10, 2006 at 3:44 pm)

Linda Diebel at the Toronto Star has offered the closest thing to an explanation of why Liberal Leadership hopeful Ken Dryden’s campaign just isn’t going anywhere.

Of course, the lack of explanation so far has had more to do with where the campaign’s gone than anything else, but Diebel’s explanation doesn’t quite cut it, either:

It’s more likely Dryden didn’t have the necessary network in place to run, and that speaks to his nature as (described by others) loner and perfectionist. Nobody wants to criticize him on the record. But a source close to his seven-year tenure as president of Maple Leafs argues he was indecisive to the point of not being a good leader.
. . .
“He worries things to death. He cares so much about people’s feelings. He tries to predict the outcome and he almost makes himself ineffective. He wants so much to make the right decision he’s not the guy to make any decision. He has an inability to make tough decisions.”

Sounds plausible until you realize that this could just as easily have described the last man to hold the Liberal leadership. Those who protest the accusation, waving the man’s effective term as Finance Minister as his standard tend to forget that he spent several years in that position dithering over the launching of his well-prepared coup, throttling his own party in the process. Besides which, however pretty they may be, Ministers don’t do the all the work themselves; and trying to tease out their qualities from the legislation prepared by hundreds of civil servants is a tricky game at best.

So if indecisiveness and deathly fear of offending aren’t obstacles to effective political organisation, what are? Diebel’s piece just might throw some light on the real problem. It’s true that he didn’t have a network in place; and just as interesting is a Dryden quote about the last election:

“I was expecting to win. I absolutely was not prepared to lose.” It was too soon on election night when friends urged him to consider a run for leader. “I was way down.”

But, of course, he did win — it was the party that lost. And why shouldn’t he have won? The Liberal Party hasn’t taken less than 20,000 votes in his riding (York Centre) since 1958, much less lost since the same year. Since 1993, the Liberals have taken at least 60% of total votes cast in the riding, and Ken Dryden had a popular name when he arrived.

Which is the real problem. He expected to win. It should have been easy — as easy as being parachuted into a riding you could win without really campaigning. Dryden didn’t have to fight, and if he was naive enough to expect a Liberal victory out of the last election at any time in the final month of campaigning, he was certainly naive enough not to give much thought to quickly moving into the leadership role. And when you get dropped into a plum post and a safe seat, you don’t really have to learn how to do much. You’re kind of along for the ride. Had Dryden been forced to fight a campaign in a close riding, he might have both an idea of what it takes to promote himself politically and a stable of workers experienced at doing just that.

But hold on. Ignatieff was given the same kind of perk — a safe seat — and he seems to be hanging in with more experienced political operators.

There’s a few differences. Whatever Ignatieff might have said about his intention to run for the leadership, his campaign director, Ian Davey, admitted to McLeans that he recruited Ignatieff for just that reason — to succeed Martin as leader. What that means is that Ignatieff was planning on this (as were people around him) even before he got to the show. Dryden spent that time working on the Liberal child care proposal.

But Ignatieff is also suffering from being handed an easy riding. His continuing inability to connect properly with Canadians and avoid sounding like an arrogant snob just might have something to do with the fact that he hasn’t had to really do either to get to where he is in politics now; and both are important skills. Had he been forced to fight a close race, he might have learned how to speak like a normal human being and how important compassion is for a politician.

Which is just one more reason why plunking promising prospects into safe seats is such a bad idea. Not only do you gain nothing from their purported strength; they learn nothing from their so-called campaigns.

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