Friday, December 21, 2012

Liberal Messaging: a Rethink is Needed

Political parties conduct polling to find out what issues favour them and what do not, develop their talking points accordingly, focus group these talking points and then repeat these tried and tested talking points every chance they get. Whether, such talking points make much sense does not matter a lick. What matters is soccer moms and Nascar dads or what have you like them.

However, such an approach has two main shortcomings, one minor, one major. The minor shortcoming is this. Just because a talking point tests well does not mean that people will never see behind the facade. Some talking points are like fruit. They spoil. Others are like Twinkies and stay fresh forever. It is hard to guess what kind of expiration date a particular talking point will have coming out of the gate. It could go rotten rather quickly. Moreover, the growing prominence of social media is surly going to mean that such talking points have shorter expiration dates in the future. All that being said, all a political party needs to do overcome this problem is to remain vigilant, restock the shelves when needed and throw the rotten talking points in the garbage.

The second shortcoming is not so easily overcome. Specifically, such an approach presupposes that these talking points will reach the public unfiltered and that is just not realistic. Trying to use the media as a vehicle for getting your message out is like trying to pass a message to someone across a large room by having a series of people whisper in the ear of the person next to them. What message is eventually received is seldom the same as the message given. Some people will hear about such talking points though an unsympathetic columnist or pundit, others will discover it buried in a lengthily article and so on and so on. None of these scenarios has been focused grouped for. People in focus groups are exposed to the talking point and only the talking point.

Liberals in particular would be fatally ill advised to ignore the latter problem. Being the third party they will be given less opportunity by the media to speak directly to Canadians and there is now an overwhelming body of evidence that 1) the bulk pundits are conservative and 2) the vast majority of articles about the Liberals are negative. The former goes a long way in explaining why the Conservatives have garnered so many more endorsements than other major political parties. In 2006 22 newspapers endorsed the Conservatives and 1 paper endorsed the Liberals 1 endorsed the Green Party and 1 the Bloc. In 2008 20 papers endorsed the Conservatives 3 the Liberals 1 the Bloc and 1 the NDP. In 2011 28 papers endorsed the Conservatives 2 the NDP, 1 the Bloc. As for the later, the last 4 McGill media election studies are a great place to start. I do not care how well a particular talking point focused grouped if it is buried in a negative piece or hammered by a pundit it is probably not going to be worth much.

That said, since being losing government in 2006 the Liberals have never acknowledged that this second problem even exists. As result, whenever a Liberal MP is invited on show such as Power and Politics along with MPs from other parties the MP does just what his NDP and Conservative counterparts do, viz., trot out a series of paper thin talking points in the hope that some sound bite is picked up and replayed for a larger audience. Needless to say, 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.

Anyway, in order to combat such a short coming the Liberal party is going to have to assume the role of a liberal pundit class that simply does not exist in this country and that means the Liberal party will actually have develop some academically respectable arguments. Board based talking points will not do the trick. They are easy fodder for any well informed person and really lets be honest; the only ones listening to the Liberals these days is pundits and political junkies. The party needs to challenge the legions of conservative columnists least various Conservative positions become received wisdom. Factual errors need to be pointed out, non sequiturs need to be mocked and detailed arguments provided. The party needs to be vicious. Ignatieff talked about wanting to the be the party that bases its decisions on sound reasoning and science. A good way of establishing such a reputation is take a conservative pundit out to the wood shed on occasion. It also makes for good TV and good print. When a conservative columnist retires the Liberals should share Trudeau's lament: "I'm sorry I won't have you to kick around any more." Special attention needs to be given to the following papers: The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, Winnipeg Free Press, Ottawa Citizen and the Montreal Gazette.

Of course for such a strategy to be effective the Liberals actually need take stand on issues. A lot of the success Conservatives have enjoyed stems from the fact that however, stupid their policies, they have been only ones willing to put forward consistent set of policies (e.g., senate reform). When pundits talk about policy more often than not it is Conservative policies they are dealing with. Outside of the policies announced in Chretien's last year in power and Dion's disastrously ill defined Green Shift, the Liberals have not given the media much to talk about. Indeed, since 2006 the Liberals have almost abandoned the field altogether; they do not put forward polices; they do not put forward arguments; they do not refute arguments. They might tut tut and promise to "compromise", but this only hurts them. The former makes them appear to be the effeminate wimps the Conservatives claim them to be and the later makes it appear that the various Conservative polices have some validity when in actuality they have none. At best, the Liberals will sometimes take a stand in defense of the status quo. The gun registry is a case in point. When it existed they were for it; now it is proved too much trouble to defend. However, do not expect them to say much of anything when they do take a stand. They might note that the experts support them or mumble some vagary about public opinion, but they will not repeat the expert's arguments least someone take offense to what the experts are saying and want to shoot the messenger.

Labrador and other Riding Absurdities: How people in Canada's largest suburbs and cities are getting Screwed

How much your vote counts for depends not on what province you reside in (Canada's four largest provinces are grossly underrepresented) but also on whether you reside near or in a major urban center. If you live in or especially around Toronto, for example, consider yourself doubly screwed.


Oak Ridges - Markham (Ont.) 228,997

Kenora (Ont.) 55,977


Montcalm (Que.) 144,141

Roberval - Lac-Saint-Jean (Que.) 78,765


St. John's East (N.L.) 100,559

Labrador (N.L.) 26,728


Fleetwood - Port Kells (B.C.) 160,129

Kootenay - Columbia (B.C.) 88,026

There is only so much that can be done to address the largest provinces underrepresentation. However, there is no reason why an act can not be passed to insure that each riding within a province has roughly the same number of people.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Native Rights and Reserves: They are the problem

The long and troubled relationship between First Nation peoples and the Crown has blinded many to patent absurdity of the current situation. It has blinded them to the fact that Attawapiskat is a natural consequence of an economic and legal relationship built around Native rights, the reserve system, the Indian Act and Native Self government. In any other context this would be self evident. Indeed, imagine if the government happened to, oh, legally define what it means to be Chinese, created a department of Chinese affairs, created Chinese rights, reserved land for Chinese so defined and exempted Chinese living on reserve land from paying property taxes, sales taxes and in some cases taxes of any kind. No one would doubt that is a recipe for disastrous social relations. So, why would anyone doubt the same about Native Affairs, native rights and native reserves?

Of course the situation is even worse than just described. Not only has Canada set up hundreds of tax havens for Status Indians to take advantage of, it also provides incentives for Status Indians to stay on them or move to them. Specifically, the feds hold out the promise of free housing, a promise to pay for upkeep and the promise of never imposing not only no property tax or sales tax, but also in some cases no income tax. The federal government will pay for any needed infrastructure. Realizing, the patent absurdity of its ironclad guarantee, the government drags its feet, provides the bare minimum level of funding for housing, upkeep and infrastructure and to, add insult to injury, proceeds in less than timely matter. In other words, the government has every reason to create living conditions that repel even as its moronic promises attract.

In practice government foot dragging does not always work so well. Some of these tax havens are so isolated and so utterly economically unviable that the government is dammed no matter what it does. If it builds up these communities too much it runs the risk of attracting more people to them. However if it does too little, the very scarcity of jobs in these places ties people living there to land all the more. The less assets, work experience and education a person has the more attractive the prospect of obtaining free housing, however squalid, becomes. There is a long waiting for housing in Attawapiskat. This dispite the fact that the community has a staggeringly high unemployment rate and by any objective measure is a hell hole. A bird in the hand is better than two in bush as it were; a dilapidated house in the hand is better than the dim prospects of a better house elsewhere.

The only possible way out this mess, viz., abolishing native rights, abolishing the Indian Act and privatizing reserve lands, has been forever blocked by section 35 of the Constitution -- a decision, by the way, that renders Trudeau's time in office an abject failure. The best the government can do is to amend the Indian Act to allow for the creation of fee simple lands, thereby switching the financial burden of maintaining and upgrading housing from the federal government to individual home owners, and empowering bands to impose property taxes. This will give the people living in Attawapiskat and like communities additional economic incentives to leave. Namely, either property taxes and the cost of upkeep will drive people away in the absence of a job, or the prospect of using the capital from the sale of one's house and land will.

That said, introducing fee simple opens a whole host of other problems. For example, as the idiocy of native self government is maintained in all cases, non natives purchasing native lands would have no right to take part in band elections. There would be taxation but no representation. Such a situation would greatly depress real estate values on reserves -- especially on remote reserves. Band councils must be transformed into municipal councils. The notion of a government built around a legally defined race is not only economically problematic, it is ideologically putrid. Moving to a fee simple model also does not eliminate such lands as tax havens.

The reserve system, premised as it is on the notion of native rights, is a bureaucratic, fiscal, jurisdictional, legal, intellectual and sociological abortion that does nothing save waste mountains of money, breed corruption, black marketeering and poverty, encourage tax evasion (e.g., cigarettes), instill in the native community a vile sense of identity based on “blood” and breed racism in the Canadian society at large. If politicians and the media want to accept this as Canada's historical cross to bear, so be it. However, it is high time both acknowledge that the problem is intractable so long as the only possible solution, viz., the abolition of native rights and Indian Act and privatization of reserve lands, remains legally untenable.