Tuesday, December 01, 2009

On preparation

Brian Topp has already put up two entries in what's sure to be a much-analyzed series of posts about the development of the progressive coalition. But what jumps out so far is the contrast in planning between the two parties who entered into the coalition.

Here's Topp on the NDP's course of action after Jim Flaherty introduced his FU to the country:
“CTV is reporting that the per voter public financing scheme is to be cancelled in tomorrow’s update,” he wrote. “I believe that the Liberals could be tempted by our earlier proposition, faced with such a catastrophic proposal. Self-preservation could provoke out-of-the-box thinking. I would like to discuss having you re-open your line of communication with your contact.”
I took a bit of time before replying to our federal leader’s email, to get my mind around the idea we were going to try to reactivate our coalition proposal (we had floated the idea of replacing the Conservatives through a coalition during the 2008 election and then again earlier that fall, and had been rebuffed by the Liberals, who were now focused on a new leadership convention).
“What is the state of the ‘letter’ that we had been considering sending to the political leaders?” Layton asked me at 7:24 a.m. via his BlackBerry. “Was there a list of legislative initiatives that would form the basis of a relationship? (such a list would have to be revised in light of emergency in any event).”

Layton was referring here to a draft letter, never sent, which we had planned to present to Stéphane Dion on election night had the numbers justified it, proposing a coalition government.
“He said the Liberals are voting against. It would seem this might be real!” I wrote to Layton and McGrath (4:52 p.m.). “Indeed,” Layton replied (4:56 p.m.). “I intend to meet him tonight to start the process. He’s saying no because he knows our option can work and that Duceppe will support it. Good job we were prepared.”
I was also suggesting Mr. Layton think about his working group. I hoped that the members of our “scenarios committee” (a study group that included chief of staff Anne McGrath, former federal leader Ed Broadbent, former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, and myself) would be part of our bargaining team, since we had spent many hours thinking about these issues over the past four years. In the alternate I wanted to be cleanly severed from the process so that I could stop thinking about it.
In other words, the NDP had been ready for the possibility of a coalition for some time. Not only had it raised the topic with the Libs at times previously after having thoroughly discussed the possibility internally, but it actually had a letter prepared to go to the other opposition parties to set the steps in motion to replace the Cons.

Mind you, Topp can only shed so much light as to the Libs' response. But all indications seem to be that they weren't able to do much other than react to the NDP's preparations. They did eventually demand a shift in the numbers of allocated cabinet seats, but don't appear to have made any fundamental changes to the plan that the NDP put forward - and of course it was the Libs' lack of preparation to put together a first set of communications about the coalition that helped to derail the initiative before Michael Ignatieff killed it off.

And Tim Naumetz offers some of the explanation as to why the Libs have indeed been unprepared to deal with developments as they've turned up:
(From 1988 to 1993 there) were no elections, no chances of an election, and none of the temptations and internal struggles that precede or follow an election with the prospect, a dream or not, of winning back power.
"I was in opposition from 1988 to 1993," said Liberal MP Maurizio Bevilacqua (Vaughan, Ont.) in an interview with The Hill Times. "I know the work we did, we had the Aylmer conference, everybody in caucus was beefing up, everyone was travelling, travelling to help other candidates. There was a sense of clear direction."

He said the inevitable turbulence for the Liberals under three minorities in a row can only contribute to party instability, especially with two losses in the same period. "What happens in a minority situation is you always think you're months away from winning an election or at least attempting to win. After you've been in power, you obviously think you're going to be (back) in power soon. These minority governments didn't allow us the time to say, 'Look, we have a certain period that we need to re-focus, reshape, re-think, reinvigorate the party and that should have been, perhaps, more of a priority than it was. Today, we would have been probably in year four of the rebuilding process. What these minority governments have done is interrupted that."
Now, Naumetz' focus is on party-building issues rather than political scenario development. But it would stand to reason that the same factors are at work when it comes to the strategic political planning which is vital in a minority Parliament.

While the NDP has been able to develop response plans to deal with all types of political developments, the Libs haven't been able to do much but scramble to respond to what the other parties have put on the table. And that's created a vicious cycle for the Libs, particularly when the agenda is largely being driven by a governing party which enjoys nothing more than backing its opposition into a corner.

Of course, the Libs are hoping that they'll have more time now. But all indications are that they're still making things up on the fly rather than having even a single consistent direction, let alone any planned options to change course. And the fact that they're once again starting from scratch under the direction of a new chief of staff would suggest that they'll face plenty more important choices before they've had a chance to plan out any strategic responses.

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