Friday, December 3, 2010

"Why do you lead me a wild-goose chase?" Byelection syncronicity: Power to the people

Most of the posting and punditry analysis of the three federal by-elections held this past Monday has focused on the deep meaning or not of possible immediate and longer-term electoral trends that might be indicated by the different results. Discussions, not unexpectedly, centre on traditional by-election turnout levels, profile of the candidates, the rural/urban "divide" and some bits on the resonance of messages or perceived political party ideologies.

I see another set of patterns in these by-elections with implications for all of the political parties and while this may sound counter-intuitive given the poor turnout, these are related to a desire by the public - in the sense of the grassroots, the plebs, the masses - to be closer to the action. 

What are these common threads?

Local is where it's at. All three by-elections were called when their federal representatives chose to take a run at municipal politics. While I don't have the stats, this appears to be part of a trend in recent years of elected officials seeking positions at a "lower" level; a level closer to the people, viz. Joe Fontana, Dawn Black, Jim Watson.  Municipalities in Canada, be they large cities like Winnipeg, mid-sized and fast-growing ones like Vaughan or rural regional service centres like Dauphin, have the most direct impact on our quality of life, on our environment, on our welfare and on our economy.
It is interesting in light of Samara's latest study of the motivations of MPs, that some of our most seasoned chose to offer to serve where they believed they could have a greater impact.

Now, while the low turnout in the by-elections could be simply be a result of voter fatigue stemming from back-to-back elections in those municipalities, I'd posit that it could just as easily be as a result of voters giving more import to and therefore interest in who represents them at the local rather than the federal level.

Grassroots are not involved in candidate choices. Here by "grassroots" I mean both the political party partisan member and the civically-minded engaged citizen. 
In Vaughan, both of the leading candidates, Julian Fantino for the CPC and Tony Genco for the LPC were appointed and regardless the stated reasons there was deemed to be no need for a meeting of the membership.  In the case of the LPC, there hasn't been a meeting of the membership related to the choice of a candidate in over 20 years, the incumbent having been uncontested or "protected" in six general elections. Some have suggested that Mr. Genco (and this is no reflection on his calibre as a candidate whatsoever) was appointed because the Party was unable to convince several others, including former National Director Rocco Rossi to take the plunge.  Shame if that is so, but it also makes one wonder about the state of the riding association if their lack of ability to identify and convince - with much notice - good candidates with local roots to run.  I don't know the circumstances, I admit, but one has to wonder just how engaged the association is with its own citizens relative to its engagement with its MP or national party. Open nominations are great ways to engage the public.  LPC often seems to want to shut them out.

In Winnipeg North, the NDP chalks up their stunning loss of a flagship riding to the fact that their candidate Kevin Chief, while also of high calibre, was less known than the Liberal candidate and ultimate winner, Kevin Lamoureaux.  But they fail to mention, as widely rumoured that their own grassroots refused to participate or participated lamely having been shunned from selecting their own candidate themselves.  Kevin Chief was the choice of the outgoing MP and the party "elite".  Glad to know the NDP have one too.

And guess what? Not that it would or did make much of a difference in Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette (CPC could probably run a stick of wood and still win), Stephen Harper too chose to effectively appoint the candidate, Robert Sopuck, so angering the former MP, Inky Mark, a former Reform MP to boot, that he endorsed the Green Party candidate Kate Storey.

Used to be that local associations of political parties acted to some extent as brokerages for the institutional party with the population both in terms of political expression and representation. Having a say on policy matters and in the choice of candidates was a way to balance power between Party and Public.  What these by-elections illustrate to me is that the public already know where the real power lies.  It lies with the people.

In the immortal words of John Lennon:  right on!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Many go out for wool, and come home shorn themselves".

I really don't get it.  I am usually the first in line to criticize my Party - and especially the Caucus purporting to decide/speak for the entire party all the time - for not consulting or at least finding some way to do a real values-oriented validation on the big policy directions of the day. (Not talking issues management here.)  I for one am getting pretty darned tired with the "You Propose, therefore I Oppose" modus of political debate in this country (well not just this country, but I digress).  Sounds silly, I know, but some issues are just too important for politics.  So one question for the LPC Caucus members and other Party members and pundits now vocally opposed to Leader Michael Ignatieff's position on assistance to Afghanistan but who (presumably) approved of the foreign policy program announced in June and fleshed out earlier this month:  If this were all happening for the first time today, what role is it exactly that you would propose Canada take on?  What role, given our historical outlook and historical strengths?
I'm not usually a betting gal, but I'd venture a wager on this one that the answer, from a military perspective would likely be along the lines of peacekeeping and training.  Particularly as we right now probably have the best, and freshest experience and expertise in the world to impart.
Where I will (must) agree, though is that the Canadian public is surely owed a public and open debate and discussion in the interests of public order and good government and in that vein, the Party is too. I guess what goes around, comes around.
I am warningly mindful though, as I often am, of Sir Edmund Burke's poignant commentary on representation: Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Friday, November 12, 2010

"A little in one's own pocket is better than much in another man's purse."

It seems that when it comes to reports about political fundraising in Canada we see the same headlines and stories recycled quarter after quarter year after year - at least when it comes to the Liberal Party and at least since 2004. "Cash-strapped Liberals". "Liberals lag behind."   Virtually every such headlined story contains a line or two suggesting that it is simply mind boggling how the party has been unable to "adapt" in over 7 years to the "new regime" of limits on donations and sources of funds.  The usual excuses are trotted out.  We had a Leader who was "dumb as a bag of hammers" (not); we never got over losing access to the corporate teat and continue to look for ways around it; we're doing okay, the Tories are just better at it; we've had problems (in this day and age, sheesh!) developing or buying the proper database; those mean old Tories used those nasty 10 percenters.   The one that hits closest to home is that the Tories inherited a more grassroots-oriented system or rather culture from their Reform wing.  

I would tie to this Liberal Party cultural shibboleth the unfortunate structure of the organization itself.  The Liberal Party of Canada remains a federation of "Provincial and Territorial Associations".  Until 2006 the constitutionally defined members of the the LPC were these "PTA's".  Actual individual membership in the party was not held at the national level, there was no standardization with respect to dues, privileges, and the like, other than the most basic (not a member of another party, etc.) and the PTA's, having wrested "control" of the lists away from the riding associations, guarded their membership lists fiercely from the national party.  While successful in creating (on paper at any rate) a "National Register of Members" in 1992, the national organization was not to fundraise from these lists, if given, and the biggest budgetary consultations each year occurred around "revenue sharing agreements" between the various levels.

Even with the obvious impact of the 2004 and subsequent changes to the Canada Elections Act, and with the move in 2006 to a real national register of members, the party continues to constitutionally vest power and authority for operations to the PTA's (real power and authority however is vested with appointed officials and bodies in the party but that's for another post) and separate revenue sharing arrangements are negotiated each year with each PTA.

This federated structure made sense in the days when there were closer and in fact unifed relationships between Liberal "Parties" at the national level contesting for seats in the House of Commons and Liberal "Parties" at the provincial level vying to form provincial governments.  In today's world, the BC Liberal Party for example has no ties related to members, policy, funding or frankly ideology to the Liberal Party of Canada. Provincial Leaders and MLA's have no standing at National Conventions or within the LPC constitution for any purpose including consultative.  Some of the smaller provinces retain some ties, mostly related to cost-sharing for secretariat operations, but the CEA and similar provincial acts have made financial and other ties virtually obsolete.

So who can, and who does raise money from whom remains an annual and individual matter of negotiation. Individual members, while being members of the national organization through their local organization are organized by their PTA's and subjected to the commensurate loyalty/affinity tuggles and jealousies.  

The main outcome of this is an ingrained culture of members giving at the local level and influencers giving nationally, although members will give when they are charged up and stimulated either by policy or passionate advocacy or both.  I think that this impression also influences the perceived voting preferences amongst the populace at large.  In other words, rather than Canadians giving less to the LPC when polls decline, the polls decline when Canadians see that the party's own membership either declines, or reduces its own vocal and financial support.

Like most things in the Liberal Party, organizational change occurs at a snails pace. In some sense this is understandable for a party that "knows" that if it can just wait it out until it's back in power, things will all be right once again.  But the required cultural change will not in my view occur without it. 

Cultural change and organizational change.  It's like love and marriage.  You can't have one without the other.       

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Remember the old saying, "Faint heart never won fair lady."

I'm seeing  a bit of red over this front page story in today's Globe, particularly the beginning of this sentence:
"But more specifically, insiders said the Liberals will abandon nanny state proposals like universal child care and put forward boutique proposals that would cost relatively little and target areas where many Canadians are hurting – such as their family-care plan, which would give family caregivers a six-month employment-insurance benefit similar to parental leave and a family-care tax benefit for low- and moderate-income earners modelled on the child tax benefit."
Insiders say the Liberals will abandon universal child care do they?  On a day when I'll be attending an event for Liberal women with members of the Liberal women's caucus and former female Liberal luminaries, billed as an opportunity for women to participate in the Party's policy development we read this?  
It is also rather galling coming so swiftly after Person's Day when at a panel discussion following the ceremony we heard the Governor General's Person's Award laureates speak about the importance of universal child care to the cause of women's equality.
Although I am sometimes referred to as an "insider", and it can certainly be a useful moniker from time-to-time I'll admit, in reality I am not.  As a member of the LPC, I shouldn't have to be, or become, an "insider" to effectively influence policy. 
It will be an interesting discussion tonight, no doubt.

Friday, October 1, 2010

"Rome was not built in a day."

If you want collective smarts, include women in your group.
If you want collective smarts, include women in your group.
If you want collective smarts, include women in your group.
If you want collective smarts, include women in your group.

Sorry to shout at you House of Commons and Canadian political parties, but sometimes you can be a little thick headed.  No matter how you read it or where you put the emphasis, this headline (and article) in today's (New and Improved!) Globe and Mail contains an important message for our democracy.  To make the Canadian Parliament(s), political discourse and decision-making work better, we need more women - preferably in equal numbers to men at the table.

The aspect I find most interesting in the article and the referred-to study -- one which I myself have pontificated upon -- is the concept of decision-making and the impact of gender on it. (Of course as the study is published in the journal, 'Science', I predict one party to ridicule and dismiss it, quickly, harshly and often. But that would be a partisan aside.)

Here are some relevant quotes from the article:

"“The individual intelligence of members is not a very strong predictor of collective intelligence,” said lead researcher Anita Woolley, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania.
Researchers divided 700 people into groups of two to five, and set out to measure their ability to perform tasks such as brainstorming, solving puzzles and making moral judgments. The goal was to assess collective intelligence, dubbed the “c factor.”
They found that groups that worked well were ones where members interacted and participated equally. They tended to include more women.
“We didn’t expect that the proportion of women would be a significant influence, but we found that it was,” Prof. Woolley, an organizational psychologist, said in an interview. “The effect was linear, meaning the more women, the better.”"
"Tiffany Paulsen, a Saskatoon lawyer and city councillor who sits on numerous working groups and committees, has found that women tend to take a collaborative approach to decisions and weigh issues from different perspectives.
“When you have more thoughtful and intelligent discussions, the quality of your decision increases,” she said. Men tend to be more aggressive in their statements and interactions, she said, while women tend to be more “reflective.”
“It does increase the group intelligence. The more thought you put into what you say, the more likely it will improve what comes out of your mouth.”"

My view is that it is literally only natural that men and women, who (without other societal impact) exist in equal numbers and who are obviously different, complement each other in the system sometimes referred to as humanity.

In other words "the system" works best when we work together, the way we were intended.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Michael Ignatieff meets with former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien today.  So many things to discuss! Quixotique would love to be a fly on that wall! But seriously, one should assume that the StatsCan imbroglio will be a hot subject for both.  It's well documented that Chrétien held many portfolios in his years in government before becoming Liberal Leader and Prime Minister and that each time he was offered a new department he would seek out and/or demand the most capable Deputy Minister be brought in or accompany him.  So his advice in this affair will be inavluable.  And given previous commentary, he knows something about facts and statistics.

So, What would Chretien say? Why it's obvious:

"A proof is a proof. What kind of proof? It's a proof. A proof is a proof. And when you have a good proof, it's because it's proven."

No statistician worth their salt would argue with that.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Water Under the Bridge

It was a strange scene on Calgary’s Electric Avenue: gangs of Liberals, mostly young and virtually all inebriated, more Liberals at one time than Calgary had seen before or likely since, and most of them happily oblivious to the black arm bands they sported. Twenty years ago, on the eve of St-Jean Baptiste Day, in Quebec City’s twin city, the Liberal Party of Canada elected Jean Chrétien as its new Leader and the Meech Lake Accord was laid to rest.

I was National Director of the Liberal Party at the time and had been the chief convention organizer. Truth is the logistical organization of the Convention and process itself was a lot easier to post-mortem than the politics and its long-term impacts. To be frank, I’m not sure that the “lessons learned” from that period have been overly positive ones for the Party, or the country, or democracy in general for that matter.

A little more than a year before this, John Turner had signalled his intention to resign as Party Leader having weathered two electoral defeats, a fractious and contentious leadership “review”, public scuffles over his leadership with Party President Michel Robert, an attempted mid-election “coup” and divisions amongst his caucus and between his caucus and party grassroots over the principle-based issues of free trade and the Meech Lake Accord.

As the Party Executive prepared to meet on June 16, 1989 to consider how to proceed, much of the die had already been cast. The Party already had a constitutionally-overdue Biennial (policy) Convention slated for that fall in Calgary at which, incidentally another leadership review was required. Years later, following more and equally contentious “reviews” the Party changed its process to allow for “Leader endorsement votes” to be held only after a losing election. Calgary was deemed a strategically important venue in the Party’s efforts to increase its presence in an increasingly influential, resource-, economically-, and vote-rich province. With the country’s attention fixed on Quebec and tensions surrounding the Accord, a Liberal Convention in the heart of the West would send a positive message to the rest of the country. Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin Jr., the main putative contenders, were both seen as supportive of maintaining Calgary as the venue for these and obviously other political reasons.

Much like the scene on Electric Avenue, the meeting had a surreal element to it. Staff scrambled to find seats for the full house of voting members in attendance, many of whom had not previously either attended or voted; the balance tipped in favour of supporters of Mr. Martin (and Mr. Turner). It was obvious to a blind man that a Leadership Convention in Calgary would cost the Party, which was already in financial difficulty, candidates, and delegates alike significantly more. Never mind, it was strategically important. It was also prevailing wisdom was that a shorter leadership campaign would favour the perceived frontrunner, and that (any) other candidates would benefit by more time to become known and to sign-up supporters and delegates. Holding one Convention only and putting the timing off further would be a further breach of the Party’s Constitution and give short shrift to policy development. Never mind, the public didn’t care about such things and a new Leader would deliver a policy agenda.

The only logistically feasible available dates in Calgary for the mounting of a Convention of this size were June 18-25, 1990 and when Quebec Party President and known Martin supporter, Francis Fox vehemently pointed out the folly in securing a date that could see the actual vote occur on the exact deadline for the approval of the Meech Lake Accord – June 23, 1990 – there was understanding, but, never mind, it was inconceivable that the process would run the full course, and we’ll create a “Meech Lake Strategy” Committee to deal with it just in case. It was far from as cavalier as that, and in the end the decision was made without a recorded resolution; we just sent out a little puff of consensual smoke.

Shortly after the decision to put off the Convention, we began to hear rumours that Mr. Turner, having expecting that the originally planned October Convention would be turned into a Leadership would resign in November. This would place the Party in a bit of a pickle according to the Party’s legal advisors. The Party Constitution did not contemplate such circumstances and had no provisions for the selection of an interim Leader and the law required we have one. Only the Party assembled in Convention could make such a choice. The Caucus however, was free to choose whomever they wished to lead them in the House. The caucus chose Herb Grey to assume the legislative responsibilities of Leader and Mr. Turner retained responsibility with respect to Party, legal and electoral matters. It was in this capacity that Turner let it be known that he considered the appointment of Party President, Michel Robert as Convention Co-Chair, an unnecessary “slap in the face”.

There were several other issues for the Executive to decide, many which presaged further and ongoing debate and discussion in both party and nation. We decided to allow leadership candidates the use of the “tax credit” for donations under certain circumstances; and instituted some basic transparency through limited disclosure of donations and donors. We made attempts to standardize procedures and regulations in an effort to clean up the notoriously hideous process of signing up “instant members” and the obscene amounts of money circulating “outside of the system”. It would not be until 2003 when then outgoing Leader Chrétien would make changes to the Canada Elections Act to govern both leadership and nomination races and recognize in law the concept of party membership. In 2009 the Party finally instituted a national membership.

There had also been some unfortunate long-standing delays regarding the formal recognition of Aboriginal People’s within the structures of the Party formally and the Liberal family informally. This was an area of both personal and political concern of long-standing for candidate Chrétien. The putting off of the convention would once again thwart such efforts which included an intricate proposal for equitable involvement in what was deemed to be the most important decision possible – the choice of a Leader.

Problem was the proposal, out of desperate necessity, would involve the consideration in the opening sessions of the Convention itself of what would be in effect, “retroactive” amendments to the Party’s constitution. According to a complicated formula, based on relative Aboriginal populations by province, territory and riding, delegates of statutorily-defined Aboriginal heritage would be elected as “contingent” delegates. If the Convention voted to amend the constitution at its opening plenary (as it eventually did) these delegates (200) would be upgraded to full delegate status.

Already aggrieved on the issue of convention timing, the Co-Chairs of the Party’s Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee, resigned. The Party executive promptly decided to include another set of “contingent delegate” – the non-elected, appointed members of the Party Executive, its Revenue Committee and Senators, all of whom had been stripped of their automatic delegate status at the previous convention.

Given the length of time before the Convention, the Party wisely decided to hold six “Leadership Forums” across the land beginning in January in Toronto, moving through Yellowknife, Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver before delegate selection closed and to Montreal, the largest venue at 3000 participants in early June. These for-the-most-part highly successful, full-day deliberative forums arrived on the scene as Canada launched its first 24-hour cable news channel, CBC Newsworld, and as a result these debates, and the Convention itself later in the year, were for the first carried live, gavel-to-gavel. Leadership candidate and former Quebec Environment Minister Clifford Lincoln, withdrew from the race shortly after the first Forum so that he could run in a recently called by-election in Chambly. A rally was being organized for early February. I was informed by a party organizer that Martin and fellow leadership candidate Sheila Copps, both “Meech supporters” were welcome to attend. Mr. Chrétien, however was not.

While the country was watching this unfold, Chrétien, not so quietly, was sewing the Leadership up, Meech or no Meech, debates or not. Historical connections and the advantages accorded those with years of service and notoriety in Government and the Party, combined with access to formidable funding and a lame Canada Elections Act, helped as much as Chrétien’s popular nature. By the time delegate selection began in March, it was well known that according to (unverifiable) membership sales, Chrétien would likely have a first ballot victory in June. The Party was preparing to unite behind a new Leader, but the Meech Lake Accord would continue to divide.

Francis Fox proved prescient. Not only did the Convention vote ultimately coincide with the Meech deadline, but the last Leadership Forum held in Montreal occurred, in a rather dramatic fashion on June 10, during the same weekend as last-minute and mammoth negotiations to save the Accord, involving three new Premiers, including Newfoundland Liberal, Clyde Wells a former constitutional lawyer viewed as an Accord opponent who had quickly assumed iconic status with respect to this national debate. Scads of Martin’s supporters, many from out of province, joined with Quebec MP, Jean Lapierre in pillorying Chrétien for being out of touch with Québecers with shouts of “vendu” (sellout). It was a nasty scene and a furious Robert had to intervene a scant 8 days before the commencement of the Convention. The shouting squad moved on to Ottawa and Clyde Wells, the next day.

Each morning and each evening during the convention my staff and I would meet with the representatives of the candidates, Mr. Turner and other party notables. On the morning of June 22, with the rest of the nation fixated on the Accord’s pending demise that very day, Turner’s representatives began to express concerns about how the denouement on stage would unfold the following day, particularly with respect to who might be joining him as outgoing Leader and what that would say to the Party and the nation.

That evening, as the Leadership candidates’ speeches took place on stage, some of Mr. Martin’s supporters solemnly sported black arm bands to mark The Accord’s passing. Clyde Wells, arriving after the close of registration, greeted Chrétien with a widely publicized smile and embrace.

At the morning meeting the following day, June 23, the day of the leadership vote, we continued our negotiations with Mr. Turner. A bit later in the day, but before the balloting and results of Leadership vote itself, the Party was ready to announce its new executive. Don Johnston, a former Trudeau and Turner cabinet minister, who had resigned from the caucus to sit as an “independent Liberal” in 1988 over free trade and the Meech Lake Accord had just been elected Party President. I’m not a large person and cell-phone technology at the time was not designed for convenience. My phone, about as large as me, rang immediately. As we met for the first time, behind the stage in the centre of the Saddledome, Mr. Johnston asked me how the announcement of the Leadership vote would proceed. “Well, Mr. Johnston”, I said, “we’re not sure about that. Perhaps you could bear with me for a bit.”

As the results of the first and only ballot were read confirming Jean Chrétien as the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, two Quebec Liberal MPs, Jean Lapierre and Gilles Rocheleau, sporting their black arm bands announced they were leaving the Party. The other candidates, Pierre Trudeau, Herb Gray, Michel Robert and Don Johnston joined Mr. Turner on stage in welcoming the Party’s new Leader.

Calgary’s Electric Avenue is now known as the Red Mile. Coincidence? I think so.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"Those who'll play with cats must expect to be scratched."

I'm getting very sick and tired of unelected, unaccountable people in the Liberal Party of Canada purporting to speak for me.  Just as tired as I am with the Party leadership refusing to discuss things with me. I'm not saying that every member of the Party isn't entitled to their own opinion and to express it - and I do think we shouldn't be shy of discussion, even difficult discussion - but I don't recall anyone (serious people!) being given a mandate by anyone, let alone the Party membership to go off and have serious discussions about anything. 

For those musing about dating, living together, shot-gun weddings and birthing babies I gotta say - you are missing the point.  It's the changing nature and role of political parties that we should be examining.  Shouldn't technically, parties have some semblance of being movements of political thought?  Shouldn't technically we govern ourselves in a manner indicative of  how we would govern the country? In an interview in the Hill Times about his new book, Power: Where is it?, Donald Savoie articulates my thoughts exactly.
"Part of the overall problem, as well, Prof. Savoie said, is that political parties "have lost their soul" and politics has been taken over by professional politicians. He said there was once a time when the core values of political parties never changed, but now, all parties are the products of their leaders and not based on public policy ideas and values for which Canadians can vote for.

"They've been captured by the election day, the need to organize around elections. They've been captured by cronies and lobbyists and in the process they've lost their soul," he said. "If you've lost your way, if you've lost your soul, you've lost what the party's all about, then personalism takes over. The Liberal Party of today is Michael Ignatieff's party, tomorrow it will be someone else's party. The Conservative party today is Stephen Harper's party. In a few years it will be someone else's party and the core values will not matter all that much."

Prof. Savoie noted that parties today have focused more on gaining power than about offering ideas, something that has been made easier by the MPs who come to Parliament with no experience in anything other than politics. "They're there to gain power without really spelling out what set of core values drives them to gain power. Power becomes an end in itself. The goal of the game is to secure political power so that your gang of lobbyists and your gang of cronies will do well," he said. "They don't bring a knowledge of other sectors to bear. They bring a knowledge of politics and they play politics. And it's not a process of ideas, it's a process of tactics.""
I hate to say it, but I think it so I may as well, but it is the embrace of this "process of tactics" by Leader Ignatieff and those who trained him that may now do him and if they have their way - ??  - our Party in. 
Concerned Party members should be writing and petitioning their elected (or acclaimed or appointed, because that's most likely what they've got) representatives from EDA Presidents on up to the top, requesting if not demanding an extraordinary meeting to have a big, long discussion about values, principles, ideas, programs, platforms and democracy and to consensually and democratically decide the path the Party should take in its quest to better serve the nation, not itself or its personalities.  We shouldn't be relegating our own responsibility to "party insiders".  We should be doing this work ourselves.
Otherwise, I'm not interested in joining the Kicking Ass Party.  If the smartest people in the room think that's the way to go, fine.  I'll go my own way.  The way of the increasing hoards of people who just don't vote, because if you don't know what you're voting for, how the heck can you know why you should.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Plain as the nose on a man's face."

Or is it?  Avid readers (sic) of Tilting at Windmills will know that the blog found its genesis mostly in the post-2008-election discussions about minorities, coalitions and such. To be more precise: minority governments, coalition governments, and such. There is lots and lots of evidence to this effect if anyone has the stamina to peruse the archives (I suggest copious quantities of caffeine prior to the attempt).

Liberal friend Rob Silver tweeted yesterday something to the effect that the word "coalition" has come (rather quickly, I add) to have at least 6 different meanings. Somehow, over the past little while, the word (and concept of) "coalition" in the political context has become synonymous with "collaboration", "merger", "cooperation", "discussion", "arrangements", and "accords", to name a few (I'm kind of chuffed that I actually came up with six!).

This morning I was tagged in an earnest Facebook note by another Liberal friend, whom I am sure, means the best and cares deeply about his party, its electoral prospects, its Leader and so on, basically the whole nine yards, but was riddled with confusion about just what people are, and likely should, be discussing.  And then I read a piece by David Mader (Tory alert!) in The Mark, which I have come to enjoy, largely because the pieces are just out there and no one, other than the commenters editorializes much.  On the other hand they don't correct the record either.

Just look at what Mader says in the first paragraph: 

The partisan reaction to whispers of a Liberal-NDP coalition, or even a formal merger, has been predictably predictable. Hopes of such an arrangement revived when the British Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties recently entered into a formal coalition, and Liberal MP Bob Rae – himself a former NDP premier of Ontario – further fanned the flames with his reminiscences of the 1985 Liberal-NDP coalition in that province. When the president of the Young Liberals of Canada added his voice to those calling for a proper coalition, pointing to a poll that suggested such a coalition would be at least competitive with the Harper Tories, an air of momentum seemed to develop.
 So he links "whispers" of a coalition (keep in mind my bolded word/clarification, government) to a "merger", incorrectly calls the Ontario Liberal/NDP accord of 1985 a coalition, and states that YLC President Sam Lavoie called for a "proper coalition". Frankly, Lavoie did no such thing.  Lavoie called for discussions on collaboration and cooperation in a pre-electoral context, hinting, but never stating that those could/might eventually to some sort of merger and most certainly not a coalition government.

For my part, I've become a tad (not a lot, but a tad) concerned that any little interventions I may have made are being viewed in this state of collective confusion.  So allow me to, er, um, clarify.

I would like my party to discuss and recognize the democratic nature of the possibility of a coalition government, in Canada, given our Westminster-styled parliamentary democracy.  I would like recognition that given an agreed upon set of circumstances that such an outcome - after an election - would be a legitimate consideration. (Aside -  I am not personally interested in pursuing other pre-electoral collaborative arrangements, unless I see that we have drifted so far from Liberal principles that a new movement might be palatable, but I surely see the need for my Party to not be afraid to sit in a room and discuss it).

I'm tired of this concept being demonized by PM Harper and his hoards, and sorry to say, by our Leader as well.  I do not think that his categorical statements reflect the nature of our democracy very well.  In constantly referring to "the" coalition, which I take to mean the attempt in 2008 by Messrs Dion and Layton, as opposed to "a potential coalition government", the Party falls into the same trap as M. Dion did back then.

It's rather obvious that a coalition government can only be entered into after an election given that pollsters aside, no one really has a crystal ball that can confirm what the final outcome will be.  I am in the camp that says there should be some conditions to legitimize the option should it come to that.  For me, a most important condition includes the fact that the possibility should be contemplated by the electorate, so that it can take it into consideration as it deliberates about its reasons for voting the way it does.  This is done in most European elections (where I might add the longevity, therefore stability of most governments is in excess of three years regardless of majority, minority or coalition status) and was most recently witnessed in the general elections in Germany and the UK.

This, for me, and for many academics and practitioners is the main reason I view the Dion/Layton attempt as, how to put this politely: not terribly legitimate.  That's because, during the 2008 election, M. Dion (and I believe Mr. Layton too - I'm just too lazy to search out a reference) categorically ruled out considering it.  In fact he used identical wording to current Leader Michael Ignatieff, just days ago: "Liberals will campaign to form a Liberal Government. We aren't interested in coalitions."

I don't think this is in keeping with democratic principles and I don't think it is particularly wise, and, I do not think that it serves Canadians very well. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

“Fear is sharp-sighted, and can see things under ground, and much more in the skies.”

Like I said here last week, I don't know why we fear a good and healthy discussion and debate in our party.

Yesterday there were reports that some members of the Party are interested in discussing possible collaborations between progressive parties, and others basically saying no discussion required, the position is clear.  Well, speaking as yet another member, I'm just not so sure this is true.


The entire last session of Parliament was defined by the tugs, tears and stretches of our democratic institutions, processes and conventions, written and unwritten, contorted and explained.  From prorogation to prorogation (well actually from breaking of a fixed election law …), the country was seized with discussion of about the state and functioning of our democracy – and the changing nature of politics and politic discourse.

But in our party, not so much.

These are no little issues.  These are big important things that people in the Party want to discuss, member to member, friend to friend.  Like MacLeans’ Paul Wells noted in a tweet yesterday by pointing to this post on independent site, there’s certainly enough evidence out there pointing to the facts we should have been discussing for a very, very long time.  They indicate that this Party has been most successful when we reach out, when we seek like-minded citizens and voters.

From all of the op-eds, blog postings, discussion boards, Facebook groups, notes and links, tweets, roundtables and academic treatises out there over the past 18 months or so, many of them by Liberals and liberals known and not-so-known, people want to discuss this. And there are many opinions. Many, many opinions.  But a discernable consensus position?

Personally, I’m not so keen on paid officials and pundits inferring that any member of the Party and an elected officer to boot, can’t speak for the Party in those capacities and yet they do. 

Better that we not, as Cervantes says, see things under ground, but examine them in the light of day.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

“It is good to live and learn.”

I was intrigued by the advice that Chantal Hébert had for the Liberal Party late last week, in the middle of a series of polls showing the Conservatives generally trending up and in particular widening a gap in seat-rich Ontario.  Hébert suggests that Liberals would be wise to embrace electoral reform as a national party-building survival mechanism. :)

In answer to a question on this at a townhall in March of 2009, then interim Leader Michael Ignatieff was cool to the idea, saying that he was “not yet convinced” on PR, preferring the stability provided by our current system and that he wouldn’t want to “turn this place into Italy”. (Go to about 8:45 of this clip.)

One of the first jobs I had at the Liberal Party Secretariat in the mid-80’s was in the Organization Department. I developed a predictive polling model for the Party.  It was the early days of “desktop” computing.  I had a tower the size of a small car, and a screen the size of a CD.  We ran an operating system and stored data on floppy disks the size of an iPad.  I personally inputted the results for 282 ridings into a Lotus spreadsheet, because of course, Elections Canada did not provide (or even record as far was we knew) the results in electronic format.  We had to refer to the blue books.  Because the Party could not afford a “pollster of record” at the time, I used data from public opinion polls published in the newspapers.

Taking into account a lot of provisos, my little model proved surprisingly accurate for the ’88 and ’93 general elections, including the prediction of a clean sweep in Ontario in ‘93 – which even the Party mucky mucks at the time, could barely believe.

Prevailing wisdom at the time was that with three competitive parties, 42/43% would get you a majority given the first past the post system.  With four competitive parties, things begin to change.  So it was in 1993 when with 53% of the vote in Ontario (a true majority rare in Canadian politics) the Liberals captured 98 out of 99 seats,and with them one-third of the available seats in the country - period.  The one other seat went to, wait for it, Reform, which captured 20% of the vote in Ontario; the PC’s were at 17.6% and the NDP at 6%.  (Change some party names and you start to see the similarities to today.)

Flash forward to last week’s series of voter intention polls and the trends they project for Ontario, par example and Hébert’s words of advice become even more poignant.  

Seat predictor site, takes the Harris/Decima’s 5-point gap in Ontario and turns it into a 13- seat gap (CPC: 39% = 54 seats; LPC: 34% = 41 seats) and EKOS’s 8-point gap into a 20-seat gap, (CPC: 39% = 56 seats; LPC: 31%= 36 seats). With Friday’s Leger Marketing poll result showing a 14-point gap in Ontario (CPC: 42%; LPC: 28), it doesn’t take much arithmetic genius to imagine the devastating result.

Convinced yet?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

“It is a true saying that a man must eat a peck of salt with his friend before he knows him.”

Yes, let’s chat a bit, chew the fat, hash a few things out.

I must admit that when I saw the Liberal talking points on the “coalition fear-mongering”, I had exactly the same reaction as this guy’s musings.

Last week I sent the letter that follows to the Chair and Vice-Chairs of the LPC’s Policy and Platform Committee, copied to responsible board members and officials at LPC and LPCO, as well as some in OLO.

“Last Friday, exactly one month before the date of the “Policy Matters” conference scheduled for Ontario, I received a “notice” for it contained in an email note from the Party’s Membership Secretary.  I do not know exactly on what basis I received the note (as an “insider”, as an email subscriber, as a donor, or as a member) but assume that it did not go exclusively to actual signed up members of the Party as the notice itself contains a plea to join, in order to participate, going on to say:

“Liberal members have a key role to play in shaping our party’s policies. Between the point where the broad ideas and priorities are identified, and where our policy platform is presented to Canadians, members must weigh in with their views, to ensure those policies reflect the values and vision of grassroots Liberals in all corners of Canada.” 

This is an excellent sentiment, but I can only view the process that accompanies it as not much more than lip service.

As a very long-standing member of the Party, I have to say that I am extremely disappointed on several fronts.

·         Some of you know that it is my personal view that the leadership of the Party should be having policy and value-validation discussions with members before going to the broad public as well as after, and on a regular ongoing basis.  I believe that this lack of ongoing discussion, debate and consultation is a key factor in the appearance of a lack of surefootedness on the part of our Party and its leadership. 

·         As far as I can tell the date for the conferences was “announced” by the Policy Chair on En Famille on March 24, and while some of the very few active participants on En Famille have discussed various aspects, there have not been any updates on process, subject areas or otherwise posted there or elsewhere since.  If these conferences were not in fact after-thoughts to somehow try and engage the membership one would have assumed that all of the general preparation for them would have been already in place immediately post- (pre- actually) Canada at 150 itself, so that active discussions and preparation could take place. Even with a great deal of understanding it is difficult to comprehend no further communications in over 7 weeks. 

·         As part of the premise or positioning of the conferences appear to be about membership engagement, and hopefully encouraging the development of more activity at the level of the EDA in anticipation of an election, again, it seems to me that one of the better ways to do this is to encourage a lot of activity and opportunity well in advance of the conferences themselves.  I do not know how EDA’s can be expected to call assemblies or other gatherings of members to discuss these issues in order to properly present their association’s or further their region’s points of view.  You will therefore most likely end up with a bunch of individual opinion presented at the conferences; I do not know how this advances a collaborative, coherent (and perhaps brokered) party platform.    

·         It is very difficult to glean from the agenda (which was difficult to access for several days) exactly what will in fact be discussed.  The agenda simply contains the broad subject areas. If, as the agenda indicates, the plenary will provide the “set of statements from Canada at 150 Conference”, “Questions for themed breakout sessions”, and the “Regional topic presentation”, I do not understand why those could not be “presented” or available in advance.  We only learn that in the case of Ontario, the regional topic is “Municipal Infrastructure” by peering further down the agenda to the breakout sessions. Personally, I do not know if I would be able to participate properly without the ability to research and review a bit, and gather my own thoughts, opinions and positions, let alone discuss them with others as per above.  I am sure many others would be in the same boat. And, just how are we to discuss the subject areas?  Will we be accepting or rejecting, or improving upon a set of proposals?  Will we be applying a “Liberal-value test”? What exactly is the form of the input the marvelous statement above actually requests or expects? 

·         How did the regional subject areas get assigned? Wouldn’t it have been better for the party members to actually have been asked for their input? I don’t know that municipal infrastructure would have been on my personal list but perhaps there might have been consensus in the membership on that, we just don’t know.  In the context of platform development and the future of the country (at 150 recall) I personally would liked to have seen us discuss the future of our democracy a pretty hot substantive and political area of national discussion these days and there are tonnes of party members discussing it in all sorts of public and private arenas, but no one asked. I do not know how this Party, the Liberal Party of Canada could contemplate going to the electorate without some sort of discussion about the state of our democracy and what type of democratic institutions and systems we believe the country should have when it reaches it’s 150th birthday. 

You should expect that this email has been blind copied to someone somewhere. Thanks for listening.

Sheila Gervais”

I did not receive many formal responses, but that fact and the content of those that I did are not the point of my posting this letter here.  The talking points referred to above are.

Now that it’s out there, I expect there will be “debate” in the Party about this statement as WK points out:

We aren’t interested in coalitions.  

Just not formal debate.  And that’s a darn shame. Isn’t that exactly the type of thing that the Party should be discussing when it gets together to discuss stuff in June?  Isn’t that the type of rather big, principled stuff you consult on or at least seek some guidance on before making such a categorical and definitive statement?  Why do we allow ourselves to fear a good, healthy, principled debate?  I’m just asking.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"Time ripens all things. No man is born wise."

Focus, people, focus!  I must admit, I am scratching my head a bit at this, this, this, and this. Do a search of today's media - main and social - and you will find many more opinions and pontifications on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's very public, deliberate and obviously controversial comments about the selection of our next/current Governor General.   Just when I thought we were starting to push a few hot buttons and connect the dots on the theme of Harper's Juntaesque tendencies (we're gonna smoke 'em out), towards democracy and human rights we make the oddest, rather indiscreet, intervention.  Why even the crazed musings of an obviously conflicted and confused Conservative Senatrice, which fairly nicely make this point all on their own, get overshadowed by this unnecessary distraction.  Please, can we focus on what really matters? Can we just stick with our own the program?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"A close mouth catches no flies."

Okay, well I've used that quotation before, but it just seems to fit. I've been dark for almost a year now. There were reasons. One of the more appealing ones was loyalty. Well, loyalty and tradition, I guess: You don't, er, um, defecate on your own Party, especially when you're a committed, known partisan. And I was in that sort of mood waay too often back then. But more and more recently, as I've observed along with the rest of the Canadian electorate, diminished by choice as it seems to be, I've come to feel that my loyalty to the Liberal Party of Canada is exactly that - a loyalty more (to be fair) to the ideals I think I share with some other activists (thinkers and doers, some like to call them) than to the concept of "party" that exists on Parliament Hill and most certainly than to the personalities who do not simply purport to "run" it, but to "be" it.

If I am a bad little Liberal in the eyes of some from time-to-time so be it. I am claiming the courage of so many others and speaking my mind. Right or wrong. And I am not so foolish as to think I won't be wrong more than I am right. But I've got some stretch in this game and right now, today, in 2010, I'm not an altogether contented bear (or bunny, bear is kind of male - but, hmmm, bunny ain't about to work either is it? anyone have a more gender-neutral animal analogy? would chicken work?). I promise, I will do my best to speak only for myself, unless otherwise authorized.

All that said, beating up on LPC is NOT an impetus for the resurrection of Tilting of Windmills at this time. Other goings on just a few short clicks north of me definitely are.