Monday, July 20, 2009

By the numbers

Blogging Horse has already pointed out some of the problems with the Libs' "Twenty-Three" theme for their summer fund-raising and membership drive. But I'd think it's worth pointing out another area of concern.

To start off with, I don't see any particular issue where a party or candidate builds a message or initiative around a number whose importance may be purely symbolic. Indeed, the concept of a money bomb tends to include an appeal for donations based on just that - whether it be based on Ryan Meili's age or the Dollar a Day initiative in support of Al Franken's Senate victory. (For that matter, the NDP may want to take a closer look at choosing a theme number for itself to present a suggested baseline for support.)

But it does matter which number gets chosen and why. And that's where the Libs run into a serious issue:
Starting July 23rd, follow me as I paddle from Kingston to Ottawa, raising funds to help make Michael Ignatieff Canada's 23rd prime minister.
Remember that it was just eight months ago that Canada was plunged into a constitutional crisis. At that point, the Libs were one of three parties properly on the side of parliamentary democracy, while the Cons clung to power based on an attempt to pretend that Canada's political system is a presidential one where the executive could not be legitimately replaced even if it lost a vote in the House of Commons.

Unfortunately, thanks to Ignatieff the Cons managed to hold onto power through that showdown. And the Libs' latest gambit suggests that they've decided to work with the Cons' image of a system where what matters most is who holds executive authority.

After all, there would have been plenty of other options for numbers which fit better into the parliamentary system as it stands. Think 34 as the net number of seats which the Libs would need to take from the Cons to have a plurality in Parliament. Or somewhere from 33 to 35 as the likely share of the vote needed to do so.

But instead, the Libs are looking to frame Ignatieff as "23". Which to my recollection makes for a rather unusual development in Canadian politics: on Stephen Harper's rise to power, I don't recall too many commentators asking whether 22's results in office would more resemble those of 19 or those of 17 in contrast to discussing leaders by name and party. (Of course, I'm open to correction on that point.)

In contrast, the use of numbers to designate political leaders is entirely a feature of the U.S.' presidential system. (Of course it's become more common over the past decade based on the need to distinguish between two George Bushes.)

The end result is that whether consciously or not, the Libs' choice of numbers serves to reinforce the idea that our political system should be seen in the same terms as that of the U.S. regardless of the important structural differences. And by playing into a strategy which the Cons have already used once to fool far too many Canadians about the nature of their own parliamentary democracy, that choice may only be laying the groundwork for the Libs to hold the weaker hand in another confidence test to come.

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