Monday, May 18, 2009

Question and answer

I've been watching for awhile to see when the latest issue of the Commonwealth - featuring responses to member questions from the Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidates, along with other material related to the race - would be put online. But since it's not clear when that's going to happen, I'll take an opportunity to highlight a few of the more interesting developments within the paper.

The 20 questions and answers make for the most interesting read within the issue, particularly when the questions take the candidates outside their apparent comfort zones. But while most of the candidates offered substantive responses to most of the questions, there are a few fairly glaring cop-outs to be found.

In one noteworthy case, that takes the form of a one-word answer to a question which every other candidate used to launch an in-depth discussion of health care policy:
2. Would you ban a direct private sector role in the delivery of health care and keep health care a public good, based on need and not on ability to pay?

Dwain Lingenfelter: Yes.
In another particularly surprising case, it wasn't the candidate one might expect to deliver a non-response who did so. One might expect Lingenfelter to have been the most reluctant than anybody to discuss how to use the provincial party to build support for the federal NDP. But instead, it was Deb Higgins who looked to detach the NDP's provincial efforts from federal politics:
14. What, if anything, should be done to transfer NDP support on the provincial scene to the national scene?
Deb Higgins: The responsibility and ability to increase the national NDP vote in Saskatchewan to the provincial level falls to the national party which must find ways to attract provincial New Democrats.
While the response is likely true as a matter of formal responsibility, it would seem clear that there's some ability for the connections made at one level of government to influence choices at another. And given that Higgins herself suggests in her answer on pharmacare that the province should be seeking to lead the way toward a national prescription drug program (which of course the federal NDP has led the way in advocating), it's odd to see her take a general view that the provincial party doesn't have a role to play in building federal support.

Not surprisingly, though, the most obvious dodge of all did come from Lingenfelter, on one of the questions where he figured to be on the defensive:
10. Do you support any changes to legislation regarding party fundraising and election spending, and what would those be?

Dwain Lingenfelter
: If elected Leader, I would be pleased to see this issue put before our Party's policy renewal process for discussion and debate.
In other words, if somebody else wants to push the issue, Lingenfelter wouldn't shut down the party's policy development process to stop it. But that hardly counts even as a statement of a personal position, let alone a commitment to deal with the issue.

Of course, there were plenty of positive responses as well. And I'll take some time to highlight what look to me to be the strongest answers from each of the candidates on issues where their current stances may not be well known or where their response seemed particularly apt.

Here's Yens Pedersen on his plans for party outreach:
3. As Party leader, what would you do to ensure a successful outreach program to Members, affiliates and the general public?
Yens Pedersen: If we want to re-connect with people, we have to do more than simply sell memberships and wait for the government to become unpopular. We need to give people a reason to belong to our party. I believe we have lost our focus as New Democrats and strayed from our original vision of a democratic socialist party. We need to redefine our vision and articulate a plan for the future that shows the younger generations today we are the party that will build a just and sustainable future. Once upon a time, we talked about our beliefs with our friends and our neighbours - we took steps to educate our members, our children and the public. For too long we have coasted on the work done over 40 years ago. I have been sharing my ideas and proposals to inspire people, to get us thinking about these things and to ensure that these discussions take place.

We will need more than visions and strategies however. I will be meeting with like-minded groups and finding people to serve as leaders in our party; I will be asking them to invite new people into our party, to find new candidates, to let the public know about our events, and to do all they can to stimulate open, honest, vigorous discussion of our policies and plans. We will all need to step outside out personal comfort zones to invite and welcome new people who share our values into our party.
In a similar vein, Ryan Meili's answer on building in rural Saskatchewan focuses on the need to reach out signficantly more than has been done over the past few terms. But it's worth noting that Meili's message likely applies equally well to cultivating supporters at the municipal level across the province:
5. In the past two decades, the Saskatchewan NDP has lost considerable support in rural Saskatchewan. What would you do to reverse this trend?
Ryan Meili: First, we must stop giving the Saskatchewan Party a 20 constituency head start. Writing off our electoral prospects in rural Saskatchewan is foolish and self-defeating - and over time, it becomes self-fulfilling. If we want to be the government, we need to seriously run in all 58 constituencies.

We need to revitalize constituency associations and we need to find viable candidates. My first task as leader will be to continue to meet with New Democrats and progressives in every constituency. I am already recruiting potential candidates. I'll also be recruiting potential constituency presidents and executive members.

As well, as a party, the NDP must realize that we will only be as good or successful as the people on the ground advocating on our behalf and for our philosophy day in and day out. The CCF started out as a movement in rural Saskatchewan which took hold in the cooperatives, the farmers' organizations and the school boards. These days, we just don't have enough people who share our social democratic values sitting on the various municipal councils, credit union and school boards and farmers' organizations in rural Saskatchewan. If we are to be successful in rural communities, this must change.
I've noted before that Lingenfelter's campaign has been fairly quiet on party renewal questions since it became obvious that other candidates would be carrying that brand throughout the race. But his answer on candidate and constituency development looks to be a noteworthy one:
8. What policies, if any, do you have to ensure a continuing regeneration of candidates and elected officials?
Dwain Lingenfelter: I will require every MLA and every constituency association to provide the Leader with annual reports on the status of their organizations, and with detailed information on their goals, objectives and succession plans. Solid succession plans should be able to provide the names of four or five people who could potentially be candidates in that riding as early as the next election. Solid succession plans should also be able to explain how the constituency association/MLA plans to position those future candidates within their organization to provide them with the opportunity to increase their skill sets, their knowledge, and their profile.

In private business, succession plans are required of everyone from the CEO to middle management. Public life should demand no less, with clear, long-term plans to develop new leaders at every level of the organization.

I also believe that the Party Leader and Caucus Members need to become more involved in the ongoing search for strong candidates, by encouraging new people to become involved in our constituency associations and urging them to consider letting their names stand for nomination in the future.
Finally, while all of the candidates delivered strong responses to the question of what sets the NDP apart from the Sask Party, Deb Higgins' answer looks to nicely distill the differences as to how politics ought to be run along with a few of the obvious policy disagreements:
17. What do you consider the fundamental differences in principle between NDP social democrats and SaskParty conservatives? What differences do you think would be most significant and that would be your priorities?

Deb Higgins: Social Democrats believe that as a society we should ensure all people have access to the supports and services they need to build a good life for themselves and their families. We believe that the Crowns have a role in helping families build better lives and that social policy is not something you do to soften your hard-right edge, but part of the fundamental role of a government. We believe health care should be about helping people get healthy, not about helping some get rich. We believe poverty needs to be eradicated; the Sask Party believes it is a 'market principle'.

We believe environmental stewardship is about protecting our planet and children, not an excuse to help out your friends in the nuclear industry. And we believe that sexism, racism and homophobia are social ailments, not a (sic) bad jokes to be had with beers and a video camera.

As premier, my priorities will be building a fairer and stronger Saskatchewan. It will be about reducing poverty and making sure families can access the resources, education and support they need to be healthy, productive and happy. We need to invest in green energy in order to reduce our impact on the earth and create jobs of the future. We need to invest in our communities - rural, urban and first nation - and ensure that government remain accountable to the people they represent, not the corporations who fund them.
I'll follow up in a later post with some more broad analysis of the Commonwealth responses. But hopefully the above offers a useful taste of the strongest (and weakest) points made in the candidates' responses.

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