Saturday, November 15, 2008

NDP Strategic Review, Step 4: Building Connections

Following up on my earlier posts in the NDP Strategic Review, I'll quickly point back to my earlier comments on the party's online presence in the past election to set out the framework for what the NDP should be looking to do in the future.

Again, the creation of the Orange Room puts the NDP ahead of its federal counterparts for the moment in enabling user-generated content, while efforts to make use of other platforms (such as a successful push to keep NDP candidates ahead of their competitors in Facebook support0 have also been at least somewhat effective. But that speaks far more to the pitiful efforts of the other federal parties than any sense that the NDP has maximized its potential to use the Internet to connect actual and potential supporters.

Instead, the path forward would seem to me to involve something comparable to Barack Obama's MyBO platform which both ensures that the party's central site becomes a primary online destination, and allows for decentralized organizing rather than funneling all activity through the NDP's central office (which is still the case to the extent that the Orange Room is filtered by a central review).

Obama's efforts seem to have borne fruit, resulting in what looks to be a unique means of delivering content, tracking supporters and facilitating decentralized networking and organization. Yet the payoff for developing a similar system may be even greater in Canada than it was south of the border.

After all, Obama's online platform looks to have been bound to change in a hurry based on the outcome of the election. While the initial organization was centred around Obama's primary run, the site has had to evolve since to turn toward the general election, and has now faced questions about what will become of the site as Obama's focus turns toward governing.

In contrast, a platform which finds its basis in a stable party to begin with would have no need to account for that kind of metamorphosis. Which means that the site's profile and user involvement would seem to have significantly more potential to carry on and continue building over an extended period of time.

Of course, that would also require the NDP to put in sufficient resources to both develop a similar platform to begin with, and keep it up to date so as to ensure that it stays on the cutting edge. And the easy answer might seem to be to say that party resources are better put into more traditional efforts.

But given that the NDP has seen fit to get at least a temporary jump on the other Canadian political parties as a hub for user-generated content, it would only make sense to put in the additional effort required to put together the kind of online infrastructure that can actually give the NDP an advantage in terms of organization. And the combination of a "my NDP" site which reduces the need for geographic proximity with a concerted push to connect with supporters currently off the radar would seem to me to be the most promising means of expanding far beyond the NDP's current pool of supporters.

The experts have spoken...

...and they're in agreement that Jim Flaherty's planned selloff is a boneheaded idea:
"It's hard to believe this is an ideal environment to sell any asset," said Bank of Montreal economist Douglas Porter.

"And it raises the bigger issue of just how hard should the federal government press to keep its books balanced. My view is if it comes down to selling the family silver at a discount rate just to make the books balance, that doesn't make sense."

Portfolio manager Adrian Mastracci of Vancouver-based KCM Wealth Management said the other disadvantage of selling assets at this time is that the private sector would only be interested in the government's best properties. He said his advice to clients is wait for better conditions unless there is no other choice...

"We actually own some of the most valuable real estate in the country," says Gordon McIvor, vice-president of strategic acquisitions for Canada Lands.

McIvor said that unless Ottawa has changed its mind, he has been told that the CN Tower, which the government acquired in 1995, is not for sale.

But when to sell is key, he adds.

"Part of our job is to make sure we sell at an optimal time. We don't want to flood the market, and we also don't want to sell when it is not going to achieve the best value for the taxpayer."
Which leaves Flaherty alongside the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation in arguing that anything to get assets out of government hands is worthwhile even if it means selling at a lousy price. So much for pragmatism over ideology...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Absent minded

It's not much of a secret that right-wing governments don't have much time for actually bothering with their legislative duties, with Gordon Campbell's pattern of canceling legislative sessions ranking as a particularly odious example. But I wonder if the Sask Party has reached a new low in having over a third of its caucus too bored to show up barely a year after taking office - including a premier who seems to think he can phone in the job of governing.

Sell, sell, sell

Following up on Jim Flaherty's mooted sell-off of federal assets, there's been plenty of commentary about the sheer lunacy of selling off assets at a time when their value is the lowest. And that goes doubly when the federal government - unlike at least some of the businesses whose assets figure to be available for fire-sale prices - unquestionably has the ability to weather the financial storm such as to avoid taking pennies on the dollar.

But then, these are the Cons we're dealing with. And if one assumes a guiding philosophy that the federal government should generally be looking to give away its assets to benefit those capable of snapping them up, then the prospect of tying an asset selloff to Flaherty's budget deficit looks like more of an opportunity than a danger.

With asset prices lower than usual, the Cons seem to think they've bought themselves an excuse to auction off more assets than they'd normally have to in order to fill a fiscal hole of their own making. And the effect only figures to be self-reinforcing: the more properties the Cons put on the market, the greater the glut will be to drive down prices - which Flaherty would then point to as reason to put even more on the auction block to make up for lower returns.

The end result would then be to privatize as much as possible as quickly as possible for the least return possible. Which would fit with both the Cons' governing philosophy and Flaherty's track record.

The only problem, of course, is that there's no evidence at all that Canadians in general want to see their government run based on such an asinine view of the world: indeed, a substantial chunk of the reason why the Cons covered the impending budget deficit during the election campaign was presumably to avoid having to justify such obviously flawed plans. And if Flaherty is determined to push ahead with a selloff, then the opposition parties need to be prepared to force the Cons to sell voters on the concept.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cue the selloff

Shorter Jim Flaherty:
Based on my government's sterling track record of taking voluntary pay cuts and pouring every available cent into decorative trinkets to impress the neighbours, please don't question my claim that we have no choice but to pawn the furniture.

On joint efforts

While the Globe and Mail's coverage of Jack Layton's meeting with Stephen Harper focuses mostly on the economic discussions, there's another area of the conversation which looks to be worth a mention:
There does seem to be common ground between the two parties on some issues, including democratic reform, said Mr. Layton.

The New Democrats have said they want to move to proportional representation. The Conservatives have said they want fixed terms for Senators, who would be elected rather than appointed.

“We indicated that we'd be prepared to look at some of the Senate reforms that Mr. Harper is proposing if he would be prepared to look at proportional representation reform for the House of Commons,” said Mr. Layton.
It's of course an open question whether or not Harper will want to work with that type of framework. And indeed there would seem to be a real danger that Harper would offer at best some type of biased consultation about PR in exchange for substantive change to the Senate.

But there's no reason in principle why changes which would substantially increase the power of the Senate should be seen as requiring less consultation or discussion than one which affects how seats and power are allotted in the House of Commons. And if the NDP can reach would-be Senate reformers in the Cons' ranks with that message, then it may be difficult for Harper to justify picking an unnecessary fight over his party's Senate proposals rather than working toward changes on both fronts.

A chance to unite

A few posts back, I mentioned that the NDP would likely be best served looking to attract progressive Lib and Green supporters rather than aiming for a formal merger with anybody. Now, a couple of stories suggest that there should be a significant opportunity to bring environmental voters in particular into the fold based on the direction of the other parties.

From the Lib side, at least one supporter is figuring (and probably rightly so) that Stephane Dion's failures will lead to the environment being tossed aside as an issue. And I'd have to agree that the NDP should be ready to take the opportunity to provide a voice for those who may have been drawn to the Libs by the promise of a greener philosophy.

As for the Greens, they surely don't figure to drop the environment as an issue anytime soon. But with a push to remove Elizabeth May as leader winning praise from current and former members alike, at least some significant chunk of the Greens (likely the anti-May contingent) will find itself out in the cold. And particularly if May uses the Greens' limited review processes as her means of clinging to the leadership, the promise of a party which actually values internal democracy should be a fairly compelling prospect.

All of which means that if the NDP reaches out to green Libs and reformist Greens, the previous split in environmentally-conscious voters may largely resolve itself in time for the next federal campaign. And that end result would look to be a plus for both the NDP as a party and the environmental movement as a whole.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

More strategic considerations

I'll plan to add to my NDP Strategic Review series over the next couple of days. But for those looking for a fix in the meantime, this post at enMasse is worth a look.

Deep thought

If I were to make a list of appropriate moods for a convention held in the midst of an economic crisis which a party has exacerbated while in power, "feel-good" would rank somewhere near the bottom.

Bank shots

In the midst of a global financial crisis, I'm not sure how many Canadians were being kept up at night worrying that federal giveaways to banks might only go where they're actually needed. But the Cons' latest move to ensure that the entire banking sector wins out long before anybody else should satisfy at least that target group:
In addition to increasing the amount of money available to buy mortgage debt, the Department of Finance also slashed the price it will charge banks for guaranteeing their loans.

Commercial banks have complained loudly that the loan guarantee program designed by Ottawa a few weeks ago was too expensive to be of much use.

While other countries' banks could buy what amounts to insurance at a low price, Canadian banks were paying higher rates. The program was only useful for banks in dire trouble, and was putting the Canadian financial institutions at a competitive disadvantage globally.
In other words, faced with an argument based on little more than a desire to see Canada match the giveaways already happening elsewhere, the Cons were apparently happy to make sure that even banks facing no particular financial trouble can get in on cut-rate, publicly-funded benefits.

Of course, the Cons are trying to put forward their usual trickle-down theories to the effect that what's good for the banks is good for everybody. But considering the banks' track record, there's every reason for suspicion that the real effect will merely be to improve the bottom line of already-healthy banks, while ignoring the real economy which actually needs the help.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Pork Barrel Steam Train

Your latest example of the Harper government's patronage-first approach in action: at the request of one Con MP (Lawrence Cannon), another Con MP (Jean-Pierre Blackburn) rewrote the rules of an economic development program intended to develop infrastructure in poorer parts of Quebec in order to funnel $2 million to a steam train operator in Cannon's riding which wasn't included in the program's mandate.

No word yet about any response from the regions who were supposed to be on the receiving end of the money. Or from the Cons' Reform base which split from the Mulroney PCs over exactly the same type of behaviour. But it would seem to me to be worth the opposition parties' effort to make sure the Cons' latest example of putting political interests over proper administration of federal programs doesn't go unpunished elsewhere.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Clearly unprepared

Shorter Elizabeth May:
So it turns out that neither I nor the rest of the Greens had any clue what we were doing in the past federal election. Now if only there were some individual - let's call him or her the "leader" - who could be responsible to make sure that basic planning and strategy were addressed.

Deep thought

Imagine just how bad things would get if we didn't have a federal government so skilled in preserving business confidence at a time of crisis.

Manual transmission

The Cons apparently aren't shy about saying that their dirty tricks manual will be put back into effect as soon as Parliament starts up again. But it might be worth the opposition's while to call Gordon O'Connor's bluff about what's included:
The infamous House "committee obstruction manual" from the last Parliament will be refined, improved and will be back in play, says new Chief Government Whip Gordon O'Connor who also hopes for a less raucous and more productive 40th Parliament when it returns on Nov. 18.

"What it is in reality is it's like the Cole's Notes of what committee chairs should think about, or how to operate in committees," said Mr. O'Connor (Carleton-Mississippi Mills, Ont.) in an interview with The Hill Times. "I think there's a need for that certainly for people who will be chairs from our side, but what I'm going to do is I'm going to go through the book—if you want to call it that, but it's just a bunch of sheets of paper—and I think I'll try to refine it and improve it so that it's focused on how to be an effective chair."
Assuming O'Connor could be taken at his word that the dirty tricks manual is really nothing more than a handbook for chairing committees, there would then be no reason at all for the Cons to refuse to keep it hidden for partisan purposes. And indeed, they'd have every incentive to want to work with the other parties in developing a manual which could be applied to all Parliamentary committees, including those which are chaired by opposition members.

So O'Connor's spin can be tested very easily: if the Cons actually believe they've produced nothing more than a handy guide for better committee operation, then for the sake of having all committees running smoothly they should be eager to make it public. On the other hand, if the Cons think their manual needs to be kept in-house lest it be used against them by opposition committee chairs, then there's no reason to think they've changed in the slightest from their perpetual obstruction and tantrum-throwing from the last session of Parliament.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

NDP Strategic Review Part 3: Message Management

Following up on my earlier posts about the NDP's direction, I'll turn to what looks to be one of the more neglected areas of the road ahead - that being the type of message which the NDP should be seeking to send going forward.

In trying to define what the NDP should be doing, I'll note that messaging may be one of the areas where the genius of the Obama campaign hasn't yet been fully fleshed out. While there has been plenty of discussion about how much room was left for interpretation in the concepts of "hope" and "change", my suspicion is that they're exactly what made Obama's campaign so successful.

Rather than using rallying points for the base which served to repel potential swing voters (or vice versa), Obama managed to define his message in terms that held significant appeal for both. And that not only made it easier for Obama himself to keep his message headed in the right direction, but also ensured that person-to-person contacts didn't get bogged down in differences based on differences in underlying assumptions.

For the NDP, the best sell may not be precisely the same broad themes used by Obama. And indeed the "new kind of strong" messaging used in the past campaign looks like a positive first step.

But there's plenty of room for an additional focus on messages which are aimed less at the effect of a single ad than at creating the best possible environment for person-to-person persuasion. And if the NDP can base its public image on overarching themes like the ones successfully put forward by Obama, then every effort the party normally makes to push its message can only enjoy greater returns as a result.

On financial malpractice

Shorter Jim Flaherty:
It would utterly reckless to spend any time diagnosing and curing what's ailing the international financial system when we could instead focus all our attention on a slightly differently-shaped band-aid.