Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dual considerations

There's been no lack of talk about Jack Layton's comment in response to Stephane Dion's dual citizenship. But there's a need to both set the record straight about what Layton actually said, and ask some larger questions about the NDP's strategy.

Let's start by contrasting Layton's actual words against some of the more radical comments about them. The quote which caused so much furor was:
"I would prefer that a leader of a party hold only Canadian citizenship, because one represents many Canadians, and for me that means that it's better to remain the citizen of one country," Layton said.

"But for a person that isn't in a position of representing others, holding dual citizenship is fine with us."
Note first what's plainly lacking from the statement (unlike the Exra Levant column that put the issue in the public eye): Layton doesn't try to demean Dion or anybody else based on their country of origin, and doesn't question Dion's loyalty to Canada. Nor does he claim that dual citizens are "second-class citizens" or "less Canadian". Instead, the central question is whether dual citizenship may affect one's position as a civic leader in one of one's countries of citizenship. Which, contrary to so much of the outcry today, is an entirely reasonable position if one takes a closer look at the issue.

In order to see why this is so, let's ask a simple question about citizenship: is it a relative virtue to participate in the civic affairs of the country or countries in which one is a citizen - and thus a relative vice to fail to do so?

I won't get into a full discussion of the answer to the question (for those who must know, I'd answer "yes", with the proviso that such participation or lack thereof is unlikely to trump many other elements of one's character in evaluating a person generally or as a political candidate). But I'd think on any fair analysis one has to at least accept that it can reasonably answered in the affirmative - particularly given how meaningless any definition of "citizen" must be if it's entirely detached from one's civic participation.

Once one reaches a "yes" answer, then one of two things must be true, using Dion's case as an example. Either:
(1) Dion declines to participate as a French citizen, which is a relative vice at the best of times, and can be seen as a particularly problematic example in a person hoping to become the leading political figure in his other country of citizenship, or
(2) Dion does participate as a French citizen, and due to that participation has proportionately less time and attention to devote to Canada's political scene, which again is amplified as an issue for a person facing the demands placed on the leader of a political party.

(Interjecting my own view one more time, every indication seems to be that (1) is true in Dion's case. I'd ultimately take the view that it's probably not an important enough factor to merit substantial mention in Dion's case or that of other past or present Canadian politicians - especially when weighed against the lengths to which Dion in particular has gone to be fully involved in the important political debates facing Canada over the past decade-plus. But it's far from unreasonable for any observer to bring up as a potential concern.)

Of course, Layton's words only hint at this type of breakdown rather than presenting it in detail. Which is to be expected when the view has to be summed up in a soundbite rather than presented in detail. But once one takes a reasonable look at what lies behind the issue, it doesn't seem that Layton's comments should give rise to an overly angry response.

Needless to say, that hasn't stopped commenters from flinging slanders at Layton ranging from xenophobe (twice) to gutless castrato. And all, apparently, in an effort to improve the tenor of Canada's political debate.

So much for Layton's most vehement detractors on the issue. But while the extreme anger at Layton's position isn't anywhere close to being justified, there's also the question of whether this was a fight worth picking for Layton and the NDP. And here, Idealistic Pragmatist says it best (albeit referring to Pat Martin's more dubious comments among other examples, rather than Layton's):
We know you've got a great alternative vision, but right now we can't wait until you go back to presenting it so that we can stop cringing. You look like you're flailing. Quit it already.
It's understandably frustrating for the NDP's strategists knowing that the party's positive substantive message often doesn't make it through the media filter. For example, the Dippers managed to receive virtually no public attention for their Kyoto plan at the same time as pundits bleated about the NDP's alleged lack of comment on the issue. And it might well be that if the NDP had received even reasonable coverage at the time, Dion wouldn't have been able to win the Lib leadership by pretending there was a void that needed filling in the area of federal environmental policy.

Which must certainly make it tempting for the NDP to want to make sure to appear in as much coverage as possible, particularly when there's the political benefit of tossing a (however minor) negative at Dion himself.

But then there's the bigger picture to consider. The NDP's greatest strength is its credibility in presenting progressive policies - in being the party that's most often above the fray while the Cons and Libs throw steady streams of hypocritical accusations at each other. And while there's no avoiding some level of politics when more important considerations are at stake, it can only hurt the party's longer-term efforts if Layton takes on a reputation for being too busy commenting on the fad headline du jour to deal with serious policy issues...even if that image is based on the media seeking playing up only the stories where there isn't much to say.

Ultimately, the more severe criticisms levelled at Layton today can't be seen as reasonable ones. But the federal NDP would benefit from a change in its strategy: rather than seeking any chance to challenge a Con or Lib in the press as seems to be the case, Layton and company would be better off cultivating the Dippers' reputation for keeping their focus on the needs of Canadians. And if the NDP can do that, then both it and Canada's political discourse in general will be better off for it.

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