Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Liberals need to embrace change least they share the fate of the Progressive Conservative party

The center of Canadian politics is not so much a place as a pose. How something is said is often more important than the substance of what is said. Indeed, while Canada might have the most educated population on earth, the vast majority of Canadians are as woefully uninformed as voters elsewhere. As the New Yorker's Louis Menand exclaimed, Plato had it wrong. More than a half century of work on voting behavior shows that the vast majority of voters do not a have a clue. Humankind is the unpolitical animal. What matters is striking a tone that resonates with most voters. That means sounding pragmatic, conciliatory, measured and above all temperamentally conservative well all the while saying next to nothing. Given the public's profound ignorance, there can not be really said to be an ideological center to appeal to.

Of course, the Liberals have long been masters of sounding centrist. However, what the Liberals have failed to realize is it also matters who is saying it. Striking the right pose is not enough. How centrist a party is deemed depends in no small measure on the party's chances of electoral success. In other words, the center often turns out to be no more than who is at the center of Canadian politics. What happened in 1993 with the Reform Party is great case in point. In 1992 the NDP was riding high in the polls, but as supporters of the Charlottetown Accord, the party was ill positioned to capitalize on voter discontent with the Accord, especially in Western Canada. The fledgling Bloc and Reform parties, on the other hand, were so positioned and in 1993 they turned out to be the protest vehicles de jour. The notion that the Canadian public shifted dramatically rightward in 1993 is simply inconsistent with what actually happened during the lead up to the election and during the election itself, viz., legions of PC supporters in Quebec moved to the socially democratic Bloc and legions of voters in the West moved to from the NDP to the far right Reform party. The Canadian public did not shift radically to the right just prior to the 1993 election and in so doing lay the ground work for the rise of the Reform party. No, the public was spectacularly angry with Mulroney's failed constitutional gambit and so voted in the Reform party in the West and the Bloc in Quebec to register their displeasure. In the process they set the stage for Canadian politics to shift radically to the right. Specifically, the election of a large number of Reform MPs gave the radical right a share of the microphone it had not enjoyed in Canada before. Unfortunately they have never relinquished the microphone and worse have mastered the centrist pose.

Defined as such the Liberals have no hope of occupying the center. The party is no longer at the center of Canadian politics; the NDP and Conservatives occupy that spot.

So what do the Liberals to do? For starters the Liberals must accept just how dire their situation. Namely, the party will be lucky to survive the next election yet alone win it. Thomas Mulcair poses an existential threat to the party. Mulcair will hold onto Quebec and in so doing will recreate the same conditions that saw the Liberals wiped out in Ontario in 2011. With no prospect of the Liberals winning anything out West or in Quebec, suburban Toronto will again break for the Tories, and urban Toronto for the NDP. Only this time the situation will be worse. The same thing could happen in Montreal and into the Maritimes. If the 2011 election proved anything, it was that the Canadian population feels no loyalty to the "natural governing party" whatsoever.

The only chance the Liberals have of avoiding the fate of the Progressive Conservative party is not as Andrew Coyne has said being "more Conservative than the Conservatives on some issues, more NDP than the NDP on others." No, the party must aim to blow up the status quo. It must strike a revolutionary pose and not a "centrist" one. Let the bleeding hearts bleed. It should no longer concern itself with what is politically possible, constitutionally possible or what the Americans might say. Let the chips fall where they may. Sacred cows need to be slayed. Only then will stand a chance of grabbing people's attention. Once they have grabbed the public's attention they can go after a portion of the electorate that the other parties will leave untapped. There is always going to be a portion of the electorate that is turned off by centrist language, who wants more substantive policy discussion and who has a clue. This is who the Liberals need to go after. It is pretty easy to sound smart when the other parties are doing their darnest not to say anything at all. Only then will the party stand the chance of attracting enough loyal followers to fight further elections.

I suggest that Bob Rae is not the man for the job. There is simply not enough space separating the NDP and Liberals with Rae as leader. You will have a former provincial Liberal leading the Federal NDP and former provincial NDP premier leading the Federal Liberal party. To make matters worse, Charlottetown Bob is just as willing as Thomas Mulcair is to play footsies with Quebec nationalists.

Even the posture the Liberals are striking with Bob Rae is all wrong for the task ahead. The Liberals are still trying to be all things to all people and so end up being nothing to everyone. They are still trying to be "centrist". Yes Rae can be cutting and quick witted and yes the Liberals claim to be the party of science, fact and evidence. However, the party continues to confuse compromise with nuance and being opinionated with being ideological. As for Rae, he wants to be liked. He is in no way an iconoclast the way Pierre Trudeau was and an iconoclast is exactly what the Liberals need right now.

After the 1993 election, the PC acted as if nothing much had changed. If the Liberals do not want to end up like the PC party, they should acknowledge that everything has changed and act accordingly.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Debates matter and playing to an audience that is not there is daft

Invariably I end up changing the channel whenever representatives of the major political parties sit down to discuss something. There is no ebb and flow of debate. It is almost always people repeating the same talking point over and over. If you heard their opening salvo, most of the time you have heard everything there is to hear.

Now I get it. The various parties hope that some sound bite is picked up and replayed for a larger audience and by saying the same thing over and over again the party representative assures that it is the point that the party wants to get across and not something else. However, such a strategy is the anti-thesis of the old adage that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. The parties act as if the people who are not watching are far more important than the people that do watch. After all, no one with half a brain or any manners is impressed by someone repeating the same point ad nauseum and ignoring everything else that is said.

Of course, the Liberals carried such a strategy to absurd lengths during last year's English language debate. After having watched Ignatieff give a new stump speech at every campaign stop, the Liberals picked the debate, of all times, to have Ignatieff endlessly repeat the same talking points. In doing so, Ignatieff endeared himself to no one who actually watched the debate and 3.8 million Canadians watched the debate. The problems with the Liberal debate strategy did not stop there. Having Ignatieff endlessly repeat common Liberal talking points all but eliminated the chances of Ignatieff delivering a knockout blow. It is easy to defend what you know is coming. When attacking, the element of surprise is important.

The post modern notion that somehow what really matters is who wins the spin wars in days after the debate suffered a fatal blow during last years debate. If you look back at the debate coverage, Harper was anointed the winner by the pundits and pollsters alike. The Conservatives won the spin war if you will. However, anyone watching the debate knew that it was Layton who landed the knock out blow. The NDP were handsomely rewarded. After the debate, the NDP surged in polls and Liberal vote collapsed. When you are in a debate the best strategy is to debate and not count on your party's spin doctors being able to convince people who did not bother to watch that you won.

This is how I summed up last year's debate two days after the debate took place.


Debate highlights

The key to shutting down an opponent's attack is a quick fact laden response. Silences, pauses, stumbling starts and long drawn out explanations are all deadly. Stephen Harper was particularly successful in fending off attacks and is generally pretty good in this regard albeit not because his responses are substantive but because his delievery is polished. However, the best example of a defensive action on the night was by Duceppe. It was both polished and substantive. Harper mounted a formidable attack on the gun registry and Duceppe torn the talking point to shreds.

Stephen Harper: But what farmers and hunters keep asking is why every time there's a crime problem in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, there's suddenly more rules slapped on and more registrations slapped onto them in rural Canada. That has not been an effective measure to control crime. Every single elected police officer in the House of Commons has voted against the long gun registry, we need to focus on crime and on gun control that works and cost effective.

Duceppe: I would say that most of the Bloc members are in rural sectors. And the question between rural sectors and the city. Calgary is not a rural sector and you are against that eh? So when I look at the results that say 80% of people elected in Quebec support the gun registry, 62% of people elected in the rest of Canada want to abolish the gun registry. The real division was between Canada and Quebec that day.

Mounting an attack is different. You want to slow things down and you clearly lay out the issue. If you successfully wound your opponent, let him flounder. However, if your opponent is about to finish or is simply trying to run out the clock, do not be afraid to quickly interject. You want to draw out his answer as much as possible. Layton's attack on Ignatieff's attendance record was easily the best executed attack of the night. It was text book.

Layton: I have to pick up on something Mr. Ignatieff said, he said before you have to walk the walk and be a strong leader, and respect parliament, I've got to ask you then, why do you have the worst attendance record of any member of the house of Parliament? If you want to be Prime Minister, you've got to learn how to be a member of the House of Commons first. You know most Canadians, if they don't show up for work, they don't get a promotion.

Ignatieff: Mr. Layton, I don't surrender to anybody in respect for the institution of parliament and my obligation to the people that put me there. So don't give me lessons on respect for democracy (Layton interjecting) don't give me lessons

Layton: Where were you, where were you when I was standing up to Mr. Harper and voting against his policies, and you weren't in the chamber? You missed 70 percent of the votes, I think you need to understand a little more about how our democracy works that's my only point.

Easily the dumbest comment of the night was by Jack Layton. He said to Stephen Harper

"you used to care about the environment".