Friday, April 15, 2016

A place for discussion

Following up on yesterday's column, I'll expand somewhat on some of the decisions the NDP may want to consider as (or before) it elects new leaders. And since the recent federal convention has been treated by other commentators as everything from a shining example of party democracy in action to an absolute calamity, let's start at that level - with a particular focus on what should be seen as having worked and not in Edmonton.

I'll start by taking the view that whatever one's views on the merits, the convention's handling of resolutions related to the Leap Manifesto should be seen as an excellent example as to how policy debate can happen within a party.

Plenty of work went into developing a main resolution and informing members (and the public) about it. The convention's resolution panel examined its options, and put forward a primary resolution which addressed concerns about the original wording. The underlying issue was one which left room for thoughtful debate even among the convention's featured speakers. And the debate on the floor featured meaningful contributions from a combination of high-profile and rank-and-file members.

About all that was lacking was any sense of willingness to work with the outcome - which is unfortunate given that the resolution which passed leaves ample room for debate as to which portions of Leap should be accepted or not.

Unfortunately, time and capacity limitations make it impossible to engage in that level of discussion when it comes to all but a few resolutions at any given convention. And that seems to me to be a particularly important problem if conventions are seen as the sole direct opportunity for membership-level input into policies and choices.

But that's a problem which should be fairly readily fixed. The NDP's federal council has authority to make final decisions on policy between conventions - and the sheer volume of resolutions brought forward at every policy convention seems to me to signal some significant demand to ensure that more policy issues are dealt with.

With the council serving as a check on any mischief, there's no reason why the resolutions (PDF) which haven't yet been addressed by convention (and additional ideas put forward afterward) couldn't be made subject to systematic review and discussion through party channels. And the result of facilitating ongoing policy discussion could be to make the NDP and its policy conventions more productive in two ways.

First, it should help to narrow and clarify the issues up for discussion.

At the moment, there's a large amount of redundancy in the resolutions submitted since electoral district associations and commissions submit their own resolutions with little (if any) coordination. But the development of an ongoing policy forum should make it easier for EDAs and commissions to discuss and agree on the wording intended to address any given issue - which should reduce the number of resolutions submitted while better focusing their intent.

And second, the convention itself should run more efficiently and accomplish more if members' concerns have been addressed in advance, or can be addressed afterward.

In particular, there should be less room for argument about how much time is devoted to any specific policy - or policy in general - at a convention if there's a readily-available alternative forum in which to carry on the discussion.

Of course, it will inevitably take time for a new process to be developed and implemented. And I'd fully expect some of the past issues to remain until members' expectations adapt to a new policy review process. But in the long run, I'd think it's possible to put both convention time and members' policy interest to better use by making sure needed conversations about the NDP's direction take place on a continuous basis.

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