Sunday, December 16, 2007

On messages

There's been some discussion of the NDP's decision to pull two of its previously-nominated Quebec candidates. But while the most public criticism of the NDP seems to be misplaced, I do have to wonder about the message sent by the removals:
A lawyer from Quebec City says she was dumped as a federal New Democratic Party candidate because she is transgendered.

Micheline Montreuil alleges she was told by an NDP official that her sexuality hindered party attempts to woo new Quebec candidates into the fold...

In a letter, the party told her she lost the candidacy for statements she made in media interviews, her difficulty maintaining support in the local riding association and for not working in a team, she said.

Ms. Montreuil, nominated last spring to carry the party banner in the provincial capital riding of Quebec, disagrees with the allegations in the letter...

Raymond Guardia, co-chair of the party's Quebec election planning committee, said Ms. Montreuil's removal has nothing to do with her sexuality.

“It is simply not true,” he said Saturday.

“If that was an issue in our party, then she wouldn't have been nominated in the first place.”

Initially, Quebec party members applauded her arrival, but they soon realized she was not a team player, he said.

“The mandate of the planning committee is to prepare for the election and ensure that the team we're putting forward is the best team in the interests of the party and its objectives,” Mr. Guardia said.

“What we have witnessed since her nomination is that she has been a bit of a lone player, and as we get ready for an election, we need candidates who aren't playing alone.”

Guardia said Riviere-des-Milles-Iles NDP candidate Francis Chartrand was also recently removed from his post.

He said Chartrand's nomination was revoked for statements he made that did not coincide with the “goals and objectives of the New Democratic Party.”
Now, I don't see how there's much room for dispute that Montreuil's claim to gender identity discrimination is on shaky ground. There's simply no plausible reason to think the NDP's view of transgendered individuals has taken a complete about-face, such that the party would go from trumpeting Montreuil's candidacy last year to ending it now. In contrast, Montreuil's actions as the party's candidate would obviously make for new information that would explain her dismissal.

But there's another important question as to the circumstances in which the NDP is willing to remove its own candidates. It appears clear that both Montreuil and Chartrand met the NDP's basic requirements for candidates - and that in both cases it was their actions while campaigning, including some concern about their choice of message, that led to their dismissal.

For Montreuil, the greatest concern seems to have been primarily on the question of being a "team player", with some discussion as well about a choice of message which doesn't fit with that of the wider party.

I'll deal more with the question of message below, but a focus on being a "team player" strikes me as a particularly dangerous ground to dismiss individual candidates. While it appears from other sources that Montreuil didn't get along with the existing riding association, it was presumably that riding association which chose to duly nominate her in the first place.

Of course, there have to be some limits where a candidate is so far out of touch with the "team" as to justify removal. But I'd tend to think that should be limited to cases where the party's machinery is deliberately hijacked for an end inconsistent with the party's broader philosophical view, not merely based on personality and strategy conflicts in the push toward the same goal. And it's hard to find much in Montreuil's publicized actions which falls into the former category.

Meanwhile, Chartrand's dismissal was apparently the result of concern about personal statements (which to my knowledge haven't been reported anywhere). Again, that could well be a valid basis for dismissing a candidate in some circumstances - i.e. where the candidate's actual principles are substantially contrary to those of the party.

But at the same time, I tend toward the view that Canada's political scene is already tilted far too much toward "gotcha" politics. In keeping with the Cons' need to muzzle candidates to avoid letting Canadians know just what lurks in the minds of its government members, the current conventional wisdom seems to be that a perfect party campaign is one where no candidate, organizer or volunteer says anything that isn't taken verbatim from the party's campaign materials.

That said, I'm far from convinced that the NDP's best course of action - either on principle or as a matter of political outcomes - is to engage in a similar muzzling strategy. In the Cons' case, it's precisely the attempt to keep the party's message air-tight that makes it news when a representative goes off message: every controversial statement can validly be prefaced with "even with Harper trying to keep the lid on his party", and the very need for the Cons' media-avoidance strategy can be traced to justifiable concerns about what would be exposed through more public appearances.

In contrast, the NDP's message of diversity and inclusivity should lend itself to the view that stifling differing opinions is a sign of weakness rather than strength. And that starting point would present a natural platform to criticize both Harper's general micromanagement, and the leaks which escape despite the Cons' efforts at message control.

And as an added bonus, an explicit policy of candidate independence could ultimately help to inoculate the NDP against "gotchas" of its own. Rather than having to explain a breakdown in message control, it would be able to point to a record of encouraging candidate independence to avoid having controversial statements reflect on anybody but the speaker.

But that kind of argument only makes sense if the NDP encourages and supports its own candidates in expressing their own messages. Instead, it seems to have gone so far as to remove candidates for refusing to stick to a centralized message and communications strategy - which would leave little principled basis left to criticize Harper for his own muzzling campaign.

Again, in each case there are indeed lines which a candidate shouldn't be permitted to cross - and it may well be that Montreuil and Chartrand indeed crossed those lines such as to justify their removal. But it looks like a worrisome sign that in the wake of a week of unjustified media criticism for an NDP MP's effort to take some individual initiative, the party is apparently signalling that message discipline is paramount. And the NDP will be worse off both at the polls and within its party structure if it winds up driving away strong individual voices as a result.

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