Saturday, March 01, 2014

On inspiring action

The NDP's first National Day of Action last weekend looks to have received virtually no media attention despite involving numbers of participants comfortably within the range of similarly-timed conventions and conferences which routinely dominate national headlines for weeks at a time. And there's reason for optimism that the NDP's plan to hold several more may hint at a new stage in Canadian grassroots democracy.

But I'll echo Murray Dobbin's concern that while it's well worth building a strong participatory structure, there's reason to question the issue chosen for the first day of action:
On February 22, in the aftermath of a "boring" budget, Thomas Mulcair's NDP undertook a National Day of Action -- a welcome idea that's been long in coming and has the potential over time to be a political game changer. If developed more and replicated at the riding level it could be the beginning of moving the NDP away from being simply a campaign machine to actually becoming, like its CCF predecessor, a movement party engaged in communities year-round.

And yet the potential in this first experiment of engaging Canadians between elections seems to have been squandered by the focus of the day of action. How is it possible that the NDP would finally understand the importance of this kind of citizen engagement and at the same time completely abandon any substantive ideas with which to start a conversation? The whole day of action is one huge political contradiction -- engaging citizens but only after you have redefined them as consumers.
Every study ever done shows that the best bang for your buck is the taxes you pay. Put your money together with everyone else and you get stuff you could never possibly afford by yourself -- medicare being only the most powerful example among dozens: education, police and fire protection, parks, clean water, mass transit.

Imagine if the NDP, instead of talking about relatively minor consumer issues, had instead decided to have a National Day of Action engaging Canadians on the budget and taxes. While the way budgets are presented and discussed makes them dry and frustratingly incomprehensible, wherever participatory budgeting has been tried there has been a tremendous public response. Give people a real opportunity to engage, with accessible information, and they always respond.
At best, the "affordability" theme might be justified as a first step in a process of developing an ongoing structure for volunteer action. It's understandable for a party to minimize its risks in developing new forms of political activity, and the NDP followed that pattern - choosing a subject which left little room for disagreement, which in turn made it easy for new volunteers and newly-reached voters to talk about politics without creating avoidable controversy.

But with that first show of activist muscle out of the way (and being proclaimed a success), I'll hope to see future Days of Action go much further - both in offering the prospect of far greater responsiveness to the people being reached, and in pursuing Thomas Mulcair's oft-repeated promise of moving the political centre toward progressive values. And it's only by achieving those goals that the NDP can harness the power of the citizenry to overcome a corporate media environment where it's being written off yet again.

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