Saturday, May 09, 2009

On membership requirements

In the midst of the Lingenfelter membership controversy, there's been plenty of discussion about what the Saskatchewan NDP can do to address how membership fees are collected - with suggestions ranging from regulating the mode of payment, to barring third parties from paying for membership. But the controversy may also raise a more fundamental question for the party which I'd think deserves some discussion as the NDP reviews how it can build a stronger party for the longer term.

Namely, why charge a membership fee at all?

The rationale for charging a fee seems to be based on two premises. First, there's the money which comes to the party as a result - which serves at least to defray the cost of processing an individual membership even if doesn't go far beyond that. And second, there's the theory that a fee might serve as a dividing line to ensure that anybody joining the party is substantially devoted to the cause, rather than joining for no particular reason (or worse yet to cause a nuisance). But I'm not sure either of those explanations holds up to scrutiny.

When it comes to the income to the party from a membership fee, it's worth noting first that membership fees already make for a fairly small part of the NDP's donation base. In 2008, the NDP's membership consisted of 6,000-9,000 people, which translates into a maximum of $90,000 in membership fees (and less taking into account youth members who pay a reduced rate), compared to $940,000 in total raised by the party.

As a result, even if the NDP simply abandoned any fee collection in signing up members and didn't recoup anything in increased involvement, the effect on fund-raising would be at most 10% of the party's annual donations.

But that doesn't tell the whole story, as the current fee is actually set at a distinctly awkward level for both the party and the individual. Taking into account the provincial tax credit which kicks in only for donations $25 and up, it's possible to donate $25 to the party for less net cost than a $10 membership - or to turn the same $10 net cost into a $40 donation. Yet the NDP's membership structure makes the less efficient result into the norm, with any additional contributions mentioned only as an afterthought.

Of course, at least some current members already take advantage of the better deal for themselves and the party by donating more on signup. But it would only take a relatively small number of additional current members making use of the tax credit system to make up financially for the elimination of mandatory membership fees. And indeed it wouldn't seem out of the question that the NDP could actually make more just from its current members by establishing a "suggested donation" level at the tax credit amount of $25 while doing away with mandatory fees.

So if the financial result of eliminating the membership fee could just as easily be positive as negative, is there any other reason to keep the fee requirement in place? Again, the one other argument available is to the effect that $10 is an entirely reasonable cost which anybody who's serious about the party should have no problem paying up front. Which suggests implicitly that it's a plus to set up a cost barrier (however minimal) as a means of filtering out one's members.

But there are two serious problems with that view.

First off, there's the question of individuals facing genuine financial hardship. I've already argued that if the NDP is going to prohibit third-party payment for memberships, it should put a waiver process in place to account for would-be members whose personal financial situation actually does make a $10 expense into a significant problem.

On further reflection, though, it's hard to see how the extra work required from both the party and the individual to verify that status can be seen as time well spent if there's a realistic way to avoid the problem entirely. And indeed, requiring that type of process may only serve to make impoverished members feel stigmatized within the NDP - which may be especially harmful for a party which prides itself on its concern with issues of poverty and inequality.

That leaves us with the effect of a fee on those who can afford to pay the $10 without question. But I have to wonder if a membership fee does more harm than good there as well.

It's easy enough for those of us with strong connections to the party and interests in politics in general to say that since we don't have a problem paying fees, nobody else should either. But for somebody who isn't at all involved - yet who might have some theoretical interest in seeing what the NDP has to offer - the fee represents a real cost for what may seem to be purely theoretical benefits. Which figures to make it far more likely for such a person to decline to get involved when asked to join the party...even if the cost is never mentioned as the reason why.

In contrast, if the NDP can make the case that one doesn't have to spend anything other than time to experience full membership, then it stands a far better chance of getting skeptical potential members out to a meeting or an event. And the opportunity to make connections with current members figures to make it far more likely for those individuals to see real benefits in being involved - which may not only help to recruit more volunteers and spread a better public impression of the NDP, but can also prove a financial boon in the long run once any additional members become well enough integrated into the party to make donations of their own.

Meanwhile, anybody who's sufficiently devoted to causing problems within the party would be unlikely to be dissuaded by a $10 fee. So the perceived benefit of putting the financial hurdle in place to dissuade troublemakers or outside agitators strikes me as entirely illusory.

In closing, I'll note that it could be that somebody within the party has already studied the above possibilities and determined either that the financial math doesn't add up, or that there's some other psychological effect of making membership free that the party is best off avoiding. But with the question of party fees now in the public eye, there may never be a better time to raise the question. And my sense at least is that a party dedicated to inclusion and public involvement should be eager to promote those values by removing the financial barrier to membership.

Leadership 2009 Linkage

With the Lingenfelter membership controversy having managed to earn the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race far more attention over the last week-plus than it had received before, reporting and commentary is starting to turn up more regularly. So here's the latest...

Murray Mandryk writes about how the leadership campaign looks to be bringing about a generational shift within the NDP. Which seems true enough until he tries to apply the same point to to the Wall government as well:
In fact, we might just have seen an entire new generation of Saskatchewan politicians taking ownership of their respective political parties.
Just in case there's any doubt, ownership of the Saskatchewan Party remains now in corporate hands where it's been from the beginning.

Meanwhile, the Star Phoenix editorial board laments the membership controversy as a potential threat to Saskatchewan's political scene as a whole on the assumption that it "will weaken an already weakened party and could result in an even weaker legislature". What's missing from that statement (aside from a thesaurus) is that there's no indication that the leadership race as a whole has done anything but to strengthen the NDP - especially based on the infusion of new blood discussed by Mandryk.

Finally, it may not come as much of a surprise in light of his appearance in Ryan Meili's video on First Nations. But the Meadow Lake Progress reports that former MLA, cabinet minister and leadership contestant Maynard Sonntag has publicly endorsed Meili in the leadership race.

Ignatieff's spinelessness problem

Thomas Walkom's latest column is definitely worth a read in tying together a few of the criticisms which Michael Ignatieff has earned during his stay with the Libs. But I have to wonder if Walkom largely misses the point in his assumptions as to what we should take from Ignatieff's detachment from modern Canadian politics:
On March 28, at a public gathering in Victoria designed to showcase his talents, federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was asked a simple question about asbestos...

"I'm probably walking right off the cliff into some unexpected public policy bog of which I'm unaware," Ignatieff replied. "But if asbestos is bad for parliamentarians in the Parliament of Canada, it just has to be bad for everybody else. So you have to be right, and our export of this dangerous product overseas has got to stop."

It was a clear answer – unequivocal, logical and, in broad public policy terms, almost certainly correct.

But given the importance of the asbestos mining industry in Quebec and the power of the asbestos lobby in Ottawa, it was also decidedly impolitic – so much so that within four days Ignatieff was forced to ignominiously back-pedal, insisting that he meant only that Canada should warn potential buyers about any dangers posed by the mineral.

A small incident? Perhaps. But it also highlights what may turn out to be Ignatieff's greatest political weakness: He is out of touch...

In many ways, he still seems removed. Take, for instance, his 2006 suggestion that Israel committed war crimes in Lebanon. Faced with howls of protest from within his own party, he quickly reversed himself.

At one level, that was just the standard story of a politician weaving and ducking. But in a more fundamental way, the Israel gaffe – like the asbestos gaffe – demonstrated Ignatieff's ignorance of the modern political Canadian landscape.

In the `60s, during the time of former prime minister Lester Pearson, it might have been relatively easy for a mainstream Canadian politician to criticize Israel. These days, it's virtually impossible without being labelled a terrorist sympathizer, an anti-Semite, or both.
Now, there's certainly some force to Walkom's theory that if Ignatieff was better acquainted with the current state of the Canadian political scene, he wouldn't end up having to backtrack from statements like those on asbestos and Lebanon. But the fact that Ignatieff's distance from Canada makes it slightly tougher for him to avoid saying anything of substance seems to me to be a secondary issue at most.

Instead, the more important question should be whether or not Ignatieff was actually justified in his initial statements - and if so why it is that he's so eager to let corporate pressure and baseless taboos override any actual judgment.

In that respect, Walkom doesn't seem to doubt that Ignatieff was actually right the first time on asbestos in particular. So let's stick to that example in evaluating Ignatieff's actions.

Is it really a bad thing for a potential prime minister to challenge the boundaries of elite opinion - particularly when that's based in cynical self-interest rather than any rational basis - by injecting some rational analysis into the discussion? I'd argue that on the contrary, that's exactly the action that we should in fact be seeking in a strong and effective leader.

But there's a necessary second step as well: a strong and effective leader also has to be willing to push back when a challenge to his position lacks a basis in fact. And that's the part of the test that Ignatieff has failed miserably, as his every bout of truth has been quickly followed by immediate backtracking toward the same ill-founded position that needed to be questioned in the first place.

Ultimately, if Ignatieff's return to Canada provided him with a perspective relatively free of some of the more groundless hidden assumptions underlying Canadian elite opinion, then that could in fact have been a great opportunity for positive transformative change - that is, if he was willing to stick to an evaluation on the merits rather than retreating immediately from the task. And it's the fact that Ignatieff sees it as his role to conform even when that means being in the wrong that should serve as the strongest indication that he's not suited to the job of leading the country.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Musical interlude

Let's stick with the Saskatchewan NDP leadership theme - here are the two musical tributes I've seen put together so far.

On answers

I've mentioned before why there's every reason for confidence that the Hale report into the Lingenfelter membership controversy will properly be made public. But for those looking for something from the party itself, the NDP's provincial secretary has acknowledged the public demand for full disclosure:
Disclosure of Hale's final report will be up to the leadership committee, (Provincial Secretary Deb McDonald) said, adding they are well aware of the desire of party members and the public to have answers.
Again, when that awareness is paired with the fact that even Lingenfelter is likely better off having everything made public and working to move on rather than having a cloud of uncertainty hanging over him for the final month of the campaign, neither the leadership committee nor any of the campaigns would figure to have any motivation to hide Hale's findings. So there's every reason for optimism that the NDP will keep up its pattern of openness and accountability when Hale's investigation is complete.

On reference materials

The terms of reference for Robert Hale's investigation of the Lingenfelter membership controversy have been released. And there seems to be little doubt that the review should cover nearly everything that one could want to see examined about the incident:
1. Bob Hale shall interview persons and obtain all relevant documentation that may be necessary to assist the LCC in endeavouring to answer the following:

a) Who within the Dwain Lingenfelter Campaign had oversight and responsibility for the processing of membership applications, and in particular the subject 1100 membership applications?

b) When did Dwain Lingenfelter and the senior members of the Dwain Lingenfelter Campaign first become aware of a problem with the subject membership applications and how did they become aware of the problem?

c) What process did the Dwain Lingenfelter Campaign follow in terms of obtaining and processing the subject membership applications?

d) Who obtained the names of the applicants on the 1100 membership applications in issue and how and when were those names obtained?

e) Who completed the handwritten information on the subject 1100 membership applications, including the signatures of the purported applicants? How were the birthdates shown on the membership applications obtained?

f) Who were the individuals involved at the local level in the Meadow Lake Constituency in obtaining any of the subject 1100 membership applications? What instructions, training and/or incentives were provided to these individuals and what, if any, expectations were conveyed to them about obtaining membership applications?

g) Who handled the membership applications once received at the Dwain Lingenfelter Campaign office and what role did each play in terms of their handling of the membership applications? Did any of these individuals have any concern about the accuracy or legitimacy of the subject membership applications prior to April 30, 2009, and if so what were their concerns and to whom, if anybody, did they express them?

h) Dwain Lingenfelter has publicly stated that because of the financial "hardship" to the applicants his campaign paid for the membership fees that accompanied the submission to the NDP of the subject membership applications. How was it determined all of these 1100 applicants were financial "hardship" cases, when was it so determined, and who made that decision?

i) Dwain Lingenfelter has publicly stated that his campaign paid for the membership fees that accompanied the submission to the NDP of the subject membership applications. Payment for the subject membership applications was tendered in cash (primarily bills of $10 and $20). Why did the Dwain Lingenfelter Campaign provide payment to the NDP in cash as opposed to by cheque?

j) To ascertain the timelines and process followed by the NDP when the subject 1100 memberships were submitted to the Provincial Office?

k) How might a similar circumstance be avoided in the future?

2. Bob Hale is to provide his written report, which will include his recommendations about how to avoid a similar circumstance in the future, to the LCC by not later than 5 p.m. on Tuesday May 12, 2009, or such other date and time as the LCC may determine.
If there's any area where there might seem to be room to go further, it's in testing other memberships besides the 1100 from Meadow Lake to see if similar processes were applied anywhere else. As I noted yesterday, that would be one way of determining whether the problem was limited to the questioned memberships alone.

Based on what's now publicly known about the sequence of events at Flying Dust, though, it's more than understandable that the investigation is focused on the 1100 memberships alone for now, particularly in light of the narrow time frame involved. And the answers to the questions about the knowledge of senior campaign officials and the expectations conveyed to volunteers would offer another obvious means of tracking down any broader issues.

So for now, it looks like Hale has the authority he needs to trace exactly what happened surrounding the pulled memberships, along with the cooperation of Lingenfelter and his campaign. But the greatest question in the long run remains whether there's any possible explanation and subsequent response which can ease the obvious concerns about the Lingenfelter campaign.

On core functions

In case there was any doubt how toxic the Cons' strategy of taking dead aim at anybody who challenges them with no regard for truth or impartiality can be, the Ottawa Citizen reports that Elections Canada is now having to launch a communications campaign to try to rebuild trust in the wake of the Cons' baseless attacks:
Elections Canada is planning a major overhaul of its public-relations strategy with a renewed focus on trustworthiness after enduring sharp criticism from the Conservative government over the "in-and-out" dispute.

The agency this week began searching for contractors to develop a new communications plan aimed at election "stakeholders" -- including candidates, leadership contestants, campaign workers, political parties and others.

In contract tendering documents, the agency says the burden of enforcing new election laws has "grown exponentially" over the past 10 years and it needs to ensure these stakeholders know the political financing rules.

At the same time, "the agency has identified trust as one of its three strategic priorities."
Needless to say, the Cons would figure to be entirely happy to see Elections Canada having to divert its efforts from enforcing the law to trying to repair its image. But for anybody who's actually concerned with seeing Canada's elections run freely and fairly, the news that the impartial agency responsible is being forced off course comes as yet another blow to that hope - as well as a reminder of just how irresponsible the Cons have been.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

Just wondering...

For at least a few years, the media has regularly (and validly) complained that question period in the House of Commons is almost entirely a matter of show rather than substance. And in more recent times, a new problem has surfaced in the form of cutbacks limiting the amount of content that media outlets are able to cover.

Based on that combination, it seems downright bizarre that anybody would be assigning more resources to chronicling the goings-on in question period - particularly when the full proceedings in Parliament are televised and get transcribed as a matter of public record within a day anyway. But that seems to be the trend lately, as two blogs and a Twitter feed from major media outlets are now covering exactly the same events with barely a hint of difference in content.

Now, it may be that the current process is simply a matter of determining which outlet will ultimately win out as the main source of immediate coverage - or that the outlets involved see enough difference in content to justify having their own voice in the House of Commons. But am I the only one who thinks we'd be a lot better served if Canada's top political reporters were able to spend more of their time uncovering matters which would otherwise go unseen, rather than simply trying to be first in line to document a kabuki theatre performance?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Virtual Document Drop - Deb Higgins

Deep thought

The latest Con bleatings about the importance of watchdogs might sound a lot more plausible if they weren't gleefully declaring their intention to neuter the last one they put in place.

Virtual Document Drop - Dwain Lingenfelter

A failed approach

James Wood's article on the latest in the Lingenfelter membership controversy focuses mostly on the effect on the Flying Dust and Waterhen Lake First Nations. And it's undoubtedly a shame that the First Nations are receiving bad publicity through absolutely no fault of their own - not to mention that band members who might have wanted to participate have been cut out of the race due to the failings of the Lingenfelter campaign.

But what's perhaps more interesting in piecing together what happened is the timeline surrounding the memberships:
Norman said the band council met with Lingenfelter and a campaign volunteer in early April and was impressed with the leadership candidate's platform and his willingness to listen to their opinions.

He said the council took membership applications from Lingenfelter and said they would be taken around to people who had been NDP supporters, as has been the case in the past in order to foster political involvement among the First Nation's members.

However, in this case they were not distributed because of a lack of time, said Norman.

The campaign volunteer then returned and approached the First Nation's membership clerk about getting names so the campaign could approach people in the community about party memberships, said Norman.

Allowed to see the list, the Lingenfelter volunteer took down many names.

Norman said the worker then tried to contact him but the two failed to connect because of the chief's schedule.

The next time they spoke, the campaign worker told an apologetic Norman everything had been taken care of.

While the council had expected the campaign would canvass the community, Lingenfelter said Monday the worker had simply signed up individuals on the band list without speaking to them.
So what can we take from that timeline - provided by a party which is now expressing its frustration with the Lingenfelter campaign? First, it's worth noting that the incident would seem to be a one-off event based on a specific set of interactions between the Lingenfelter campaign and the two First Nations, rather than a matter of premeditation on either side.

Second, the timeline looks to have been an extremely short one. I've raised before the question of whether one person would likely have filled out over a thousand membership forms without assistance. And it seems all the less likely when by all indications the volunteer only started filling out forms after two April meetings (and subsequent efforts to talk to Norman).

Finally, it looks like the Lingenfelter volunteer was less than accurate in telling Norman what would be done with the membership lists. And that looks to be perhaps the most damaging element of the incident for the NDP going forward.

After all, it's a must for any political party (particularly a citizen- and grassroots-driven one like the NDP) to work with other groups in establishing and working toward common interests. And that necessarily requires a substantial degree of mutual trust.

Which makes it a serious problem that Lingenfelter's volunteer - being somebody holding a prominent enough position to accompany Lingenfelter alone on the first visit - apparently violated that trust by using the membership list to actually sign people up without their consent rather than merely to canvas them. And it would figure to be much harder for the NDP as a whole to build connections going into the 2011 election if Lingenfelter emerges victorious in the leadership race while leaving any room for doubt that he considers that type of breach to be beyond the pale.

Virtual Document Drop - Ryan Meili

A cost/benefit analysis

Murray Mandryk seems to be coming around to the view that the Lingenfelter membership issue likely is the result of a single volunteer (and insufficient supervision by the campaign) rather than a strategy that started at the top. But let's look in a bit more detail at why that's likely so - and what Robert Hale will need to examine to answer the question one way or the other.

Let's start by asking what the Lingenfelter campaign could possibly have gained by submitting and paying for the memberships if it had been aware that they didn't reflect actual support for the leadership vote. At most, one could argue that Lingenfelter could point to the memberships as an indicator of momentum. But that hardly serves to add any great value for a campaign which already figured to have sold more memberships than any other - particularly when the number of memberships involved doesn't add to Lingenfelter's actual sales by a margin which figures to change the general narrative surrounding the race.

And the calculus makes even less sense if there was any assumption that votes could be cast on behalf of the members signed up without their consent. Simply put, if the Lingenfelter campaign was counting on a strategy of conscripting people's names against their will to make up his margin of victory, then why stop at 1,100 when that number would have at best a moderate chance of making the final difference in the race? And why concentrate those memberships within two First Nations so as to draw attention - not to mention bragging about the concentration of memberships which was virtually certain to bring the problem to light?

Of course, in order to verify that similar problems didn't pop up elsewhere, Hale will presumably need to be able to evaluate whether the same strategy was actually carried out anywhere else. Which means having access to the other memberships sold by Lingenfelter's campaign as well as the canvassers whose names were signed to those, as well as following up with at least some of the individuals signed up.

But if the two First Nations involved are the extent of the problem, then one could hardly design a scheme which presented a higher likelihood of severe embarrassment in exchange for marginal benefits. Which does indeed suggest some serious oversight issues within Lingenfelter's campaign - but also offers ample reason to doubt that the scheme originated at the top.

Virtual Document Drop - Note to the Campaigns

Following up on last night's post, a note to the campaigns in the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race. While I'll plan to post the candidates' materials as scanned, the candidates are welcome as well to send their mailers to the e-mail address on the right (I'll be posting as JPGs, but a PDF is fine as well) to avoid any issues resulting from the scanning process.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Virtual Document Drop - Yens Pedersen

Virtual Document Drop

One of the greatest opportunities in the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race for the candidates to introduce themselves to voters who might not otherwise be familiar - or to describe their vision to voters looking to compare and contrast among the options - is through a one-time mailout which is going out to each member signed up by the deadline. And having received the candidate materials in the mail today, I'd think it's appropriate to facilitate more widespread discussion of what the candidates have had to say.

So stay tuned for a post apiece sharing the message which each candidate has sent to the voters in the leadership race. (Unfortunately the documents didn't all scan perfectly, but anything missing around the edges shouldn't affect the basic content.)

Apparently there's still a leadership race going on

And Ryan Meili has released an ad on First Nations - featuring people who actually wanted to participate.

On equal space

As I've noted in my earlier posts, for the most part the Saskatchewan NDP's response to the Lingenfelter membership controversy has been exemplary. But I'll note one possible question as to how the party has publicized the issue.

Until yesterday, the NDP's Leadership News page consisted entirely of two different types of stories: a single announcement of each candidate's entry into the race, and subsequent news from the party about scheduling, membership sales, and other matters which are entirely neutral among the leadership contestants.

But in dealing with the membership issue, the party has posted a statement of responsibility from Lingenfelter without any concurrent space being given to the other candidates.

It's understandable that the NDP would have to post something in explanation for its move to pull the questioned memberships. And obviously Lingenfelter would be the only candidate with information to offer about exactly what happened.

That said, though, it's far from clear why the NDP's news item couldn't have been written from the party's perspective rather than Lingenfelter's - or why it couldn't at least have been kept free of at least some spin about both the incident and the wider campaign. And if there was some particularly important reason to allow Lingenfelter to frame his own message, it's hard to see why the other candidates wouldn't receive some space to do the same.

Of course, the NDP is having to walk a fine line in determining how to deal with the Lingenfelter issue. But however unfortunate it is that the campaign is drawing more eyes over a controversy than it did for anything else so far, it doesn't help matters if anybody visiting the leadership news site for the first time is now seeing PR from Lingenfelter alone. And considering how easily that could seemingly be fixed, it hopefully won't take long for the party to return to its well-established policy of keeping the candidates on an indisputably equal footing.

Deep thought

Of course it's entirely democratic to count non-votes as votes in one's favour. Which is why based on last election's 59% turnout rate, whoever claims the absent voters first actually won a majority government.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Due diligence and undue demands

The new developments in the Dwain Lingenfelter membership list controversy just keep on coming, with two more noteworthy happenings this afternoon.

First, the Saskatchewan NDP has announced an independent investigation into exactly what happened:
The party has arranged to have Swift Current lawyer Robert Hale look into how it happened and how it can be prevented in the future.

Hale is a New Democrat who ran for the party against Brad Wall in the 2007 election but has had no role in any of the leadership campaigns...

"We just need to do this for Mr. Lingenfelter; we need to do it for Ms. Higgins; we need to do it for Mr. Pedersen; and we need to do it for Ryan Meili," Hale said.

"But mainly, we need to do it for the membership of the New Democratic Party. We need people to feel satisfied that the leadership content committee has done appropriate due diligence on this when they make their decision of what is exactly going to take place."

The party hopes Hale will have his work done as early as next week. It's not yet known whether Hales's (sic) findings will be made public, McDonald said.
Now, I wouldn't put too much stock in any question as to whether or not Hale's findings will in fact be made public.

For today, the NDP's priority was likely to set the investigation in motion without making any final decisions as to how its results would be handled. But it's hard to see who would stand to benefit in any way from hiding the outcome of a review which we know to be taking place. And indeed the Lingenfelter campaign might suffer more than anybody if the investigation were to stay under wraps, as there seem to be plenty of voices assuming the worst until something else is shown to be true.

And unfortunately, one of the leadership candidates has apparently joined that group, as Yens Pedersen is publicly calling for Lingenfelter to drop out of the leadership race:
Dwain Lingenfelter should pull out of the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race for the good of the party after his campaign signed up more than 1,000 new party members without their desire, consent or knowledge, said leadership candidate Yens Pedersen on Tuesday.
Pedersen, a Regina lawyer and former party president, said he welcomed the review by Hale but said Lingenfelter should take responsibility and step down.

“In my view, this has always been the party of integrity and morality. And in my view, for the party to maintain its reputation, if Dwain really believes in the objectives and ideals and priorities of this party, then I think for the good of the party he should step down,” said Pedersen, who added he is not accusing Lingenfelter of personal responsibility.
It's particularly striking that Pedersen apparently issued his statement even after he heard about the Hale investigation - which would seem to offer reason to hold back on any calls for immediate action until after the review is completed.

But even leaving that aside, one would expect the actual leadership candidates to take a more measured stance rather than making what would seem to be an extreme demand. And judging from the Lingenfelter camp's testy response, Pedersen's statement may have been the first in the race to create bad blood between the candidates which might outlast the leadership race itself - which can't do much good for any of the candidates' interests in the long run.

Update: The Pedersen campaign advises that Yens' call for Lingenfelter to step down came before he found out about the Hale investigation, which puts it in a somewhat different light as an initial position. I'd presumed otherwise based on the Lingenfelter campaign's response which seemed to imply that the party's review process had been made known to the candidates beforehand - but my apologies to Yens for the error.

And rightly so

The NDP's Leadership Planning Committee has addressed one of the bigger concerns with Dwain Lingenfelter's Meadow Lake membership purchases, declaring that all 1,100 questioned memberships will be pulled rather than allowing individuals to be contacted to sign up after the membership deadline.

Which means that the questioned memberships themselves shouldn't have any impact on the leadership race. But it remains to be seen whether Lingenfelter's campaign will face any difficulty keeping its actual party base of support intact in the aftermath of the incident. And the longer it takes for the remaining issues to get dealt with, the more painful the result figures to be for a front-runner who already seems to have lost any air of invincibility.

No reformer he

Shorter Michael Ignatieff on electoral reform:

We must cling to the first-past-the-post system that has spawned the Bloc, Reform and other regional parties in order to prevent such parties from developing.

Taking stock

It looks like the Lingenfelter membership issue is starting to snowball, with bloggers and columnists alike putting matters in stronger terms by the day. But let's take a step back for a wider view of what we've learned over the course of the weekend - and more importantly, what questions remain to be answered and how.

Murray Mandryk's concerns about Lingenfelter's story notwithstanding, I'd tend toward the view that absent some evidence to the contrary, there's no obvious reason to doubt the general outlines as to what happened: that an individual volunteer (or volunteers) arranged memberships on the part of people who didn't want them by copying their names from an outside list, and the Link campaign took the memberships at face value and approved payment for them while missing or ignoring obvious red flags.

But the question of "who" is still up in the air - and that looks to be where there's some significant need for more public disclosure.

On the volunteer end, there's little apparent reason why the name of somebody who signed a thousand-plus membership forms with other people's names would be kept quiet. (And it's only by getting the name public that we'd be able to follow up by asking whether there was more than one person involved - which would seem likely given the time required to fill out that many forms.)

And on the campaign end, the question of who exactly approved the expenses and held responsibility for reviewing the memberships has likewise been glossed over so far. It's well and good that Lingenfelter has recognized that some measure of responsibility lies with his campaign generally, but it would be hard for anybody to be reassured if nobody takes personal responsibility for what Lingenfelter has acknowledged to be a serious problem.

Moreover, it's precisely by naming some names and getting details from the individuals involved in submitting the list and the payment that we can find out if there's any reason to doubt the current line from the Lingenfelter camp.

Meanwhile, there's certainly room for discussion as to what more the party can do to prevent problems like this from turning up. At least some have suggested that leadership campaigns shouldn't be able to pay for individual memberships, though I'd wonder if that should be accompanied by making fee waivers more accessible at the party level (as they don't appear to be provided for on the party's current membership forms). And I'll agree with Jason that the party's response to Lingenfelter's campaign needs to be strong enough to create a genuine deterrent to similar actions in the future.

But aside from one minor issue of membership policy and the yet-to-be-determined question of Link's punishment, it's hard to see how the NDP as a whole could have avoided the problem initially, or done anything more in response once it surfaced. And it'll be important to distinguish between the NDP's genuine interest in dealing with issues like this one to make sure they don't happen again, and the bad faith of those who would shriek "cover-up" in hopes of smearing the party no matter how thoroughly an issue gets canvassed.

Protected by apathy

To nobody's surprise, the Cons' ludicrously high barriers to any nomination challenges have served their purpose. And as a result, Rob Anders, Peter Goldring, Leon Benoit and every other MP who would face a serious risk of losing a democratic contest will avoid having to answer to their constituents in a fair nomination contest.

That said, it's worth wondering whether the Cons will offer up a bit more detail which might put into perspective the combination of arbitrary standards and public apathy which seems to have led to the actual result.

So far, all the Cons have said is that none of the ridings received a 66% vote in favour of holding a nomination meeting. But is there a single riding where the 66% of the Cons' members even bothered to respond to the party's poll one way or the other? And if not, then what does it say that the Cons' MPs are only avoiding democracy due to the fact that party members don't care enough to participate?

Monday, May 04, 2009

Uselessness in motion

Just when you thought they couldn't get more cowardly, the Cons have managed to lower the bar once again in trying to escape responsibility for disowning Abousfian Abdelrazik:
(NDP) MP Paul Dewar tabled a motion at the House of Commons Foreign Affairs and International Development committee to force that stranded Canadian to appear for testimony.

The would-be witness - Sudanese-Canadian Abousfian Abdelrazik - has been effectively barred from the country and is living at the Canadian embassy in Khartoum.
Dewar's motion passed easily, with support from all opposition parties while the Conservative members abstained Monday.
That's right: while the Harper government continues to make up ever-less-plausible excuses to try to wash their hands of a Canadian citizen stranded abroad, the Cons' rank-and-file MPs have apparently been ordered to pretend the problem doesn't exist rather than taking a stance one way or the other. Which should offer yet another reminder that when Canadians' interests are at stake, they can count on any Con MP to be told to sit down and shut up rather than doing anything to help.

A partial explanation

Dwain Lingenfelter has released a statement on his campaign's questioned membership lists. And while the Lingenfelter campaign is rightly (if inevitably) accepting responsibility for the issue, there are a few points worth noting which appear to add to what we knew about the race so far.

First off, there's Lingenfelter's mention that his campaign has processed a total of "more than 6000 memberships" during the course of the leadership campaign. Interestingly, that looks to largely answer my question as to just how many new memberships had come through each campaign - and it to the extent it's correct, it would signal that Lingenfelter could take credit for a majority of the new members signed up during the campaign so far.

Mind you, that margin figures to be substantially reduced if the challenged memberships from Meadow Lake are taken out of the mix. In that respect, it seems fairly striking that nearly a fifth of Lingenfelter's new members would come from a single volunteer focusing on only part of a riding. And indeed, there's some quesetion as to why his campaign wouldn't have had some significant follow-up questions about that kind of influx - especially when it was being asked to foot the bill.

Which brings us to Lingenfelter's statement as to how it came to pay for the memberships:
In the weeks before the membership deadline, one of our many northern volunteers was asked to oversee membership renewals, and applications for membership, among people on First Nations in the Meadow Lake constituency. In the week prior to the membership deadline we received 11-hundred membership applications from these First Nations. Our northern volunteer told us that in most cases, these new members would not be able to afford the cost of a Party Membership.

Our Party Constitution and our Leadership Contest Rules do not limit or restrict helping those in need, who wish to become part of the democratic process. We wanted people from these First Nations to have an opportunity to participate, and our campaign decided to cover the cost of these applications.
Even leaving aside the issues I raised in my earlier post as well as the question of the sheer numbers involved, it's still worth raising the question of why Lingenfelter's campaign would have seen its role as involving paying for all of the members on the list.

After all, Lingenfelter's own account suggests that not all of the listed names could be linked to any difficulty paying for a membership (though of course we know now that there was little if any followup to confirm the information on the face of the applications). And it's worth wondering how many more of Lingenfelter's new memberships were similarly added to the party rolls based on Link's willingness to pay to bring new votes for himself into the fold - and if so what that might say for the likelihood that his new recruits are willing to take any personal stake in the future of Saskatchewan's NDP.

On contributions

CBC follows up with more on the Lingenfelter membership story. And there's one previously-unreported piece which looks like it might be highly significant:
All of the New Democrat membership applications that are being investigated by the Saskatchewan NDP were paid for by the Dwain Lingenfelter campaign, the party says.

Party officials spent the weekend investigating 1,100 applications after concerns were raised in the Meadow Lake constituency.
The NDP leadership committee spent the weekend contacting applicants to find out whether they really wanted to be members of the NDP — and some didn't, McDonald said.

"The Lingenfelter campaign paid for all of them," she said.
Now, the first point to be taken from the payment details is that the issue goes at least to somebody with authority to spend significant amounts of money on behalf of the Lingenfelter campaign. But that looks to be a relatively small piece of the potential problem.

Under most circumstances - i.e. where people pay for their own memberships - Saskatchewan's Election Act, 1996 wouldn't figure to come into play. In general, the rules for donations only require that a party collect information for donations of over $25 and publicly disclose donations over $250 - so there isn't any particular concern about the party financing rules when an individual pays for his or her own membership within a party.

But it would seem to be a different story where a leadership campaign puts together a coordinated effort which results in it donating thousands of dollars to a provincial party in the name of individuals. And indeed, amounts received in membership fees are specifically included as contributions for at least some purposes under the legislation: see section 250(5), which deems membership fees or dues to be contributions for the purposes of parties' annual returns.

Now, it might be that since membership fees are specifically included in that section, they're excluded by implication from other requirements - such as that contributions in a person's name must come from that person's own money (section 239(1)). But it's not hard to see how a plan involving an entity making multiple small contributions through people who aren't even asked whether or not to attach their names to them could result in some significant potential problems. And that may mean that while the party's investigation deals with the internal ramifications for the leadership race, there may be a need for some review from Elections Saskatchewan as well to make sure the Lingenfelter campaign's process isn't on thin ice legally.

On transfer effects

Erin suggests once again that we might want to revisit corporate tax cuts just because their main effect internationally is to redirect money currently paid to Canadian governments toward the U.S. instead. But doesn't he know that a reduction in government capacity is reward enough for the business crowd even if nobody actually saves a dime?


The Star Phoenix reports on the initial results of the Saskatchewan NDP's investigation as to the member lists submitted last month:
An investigation by the Saskatchewan NDP into the work of one its leadership campaigns in the Meadow Lake constituency has found names of people who don't want to be members but had memberships purchased for them.

The NDP has pulled more than 1,100 memberships sold by one campaign in the northern constituency and is contacting as many people as possible to confirm their memberships.

"This is someone who was overzealously working to renew memberships," said NDP provincial secretary and CEO Deb McDonald.

Purchasing memberships for other people is not illegal under party rules.

The investigation started Friday and will continue until this evening, when the results will be handed over to the leadership committee that governs the campaign, McDonald said.
In a constituency where members usually number around 400, the large number of returning forms raised eyebrows. The party received phone calls from current members and leadership campaigns.
An unknown number of the memberships have been purchased for people who did not want to be members.

"If we find 1,000 of the 1,100 are invalid, we'll remove them and destroy them," said McDonald.

The party can track which campaign sold the memberships through forms that must include the signatures of people, usually associated with a single campaign, who sold them.
Now, there may be some room for debate as to whether or not the party's solution goes far enough. In effect, the people signed up without their consent are being given a chance to get around the membership deadline which applies to everybody else in the province - which would be avoided if the party's question was whether the people involved actually signed up before the deadline, not whether they want a membership now.

But at the very least, the investigation looks to have undone a strong majority of the damage which might have been done if the list had been left as submitted. And we'll find out before long whether the campaign representative responsible will in turn face the music for what looks to have been a highly dubious tactic.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A just suggestion

One of the more striking shifts in Canadian politics over the past decade-plus has been increased pandering on crime across the political spectrum - and the last few years of Con grandstanding at the federal level have only made matters worse. Which is why even as the U.S. is starting to wake up to the implications of its own ineffective policies, Canada is unfortunately trending toward a more costly, more rigid system which nonetheless does less to protect public safety. And the Harper government has led the charge while bragging that its strategy relies on telling Canadians to ignore actual evidence about crime rates and results.

From that starting point, let's note one of the more interesting platform planks in the Saskatchewan NDP leadership campaign. While the other candidates have stayed silent on the issue, Ryan Meili's stance on justice makes for a much-needed break from the usual:
Saskatchewan needs a criminal justice system that is effective. A system that (step 1) efficiently and accurately identifies those who harm other citizens and (step 2) uses the most effective techniques for reducing the possibility that they may again harm other citizens. Our present methods do not focus on effective measures (step 2); instead, we focus on incarceration to attempt to “frighten” potential offenders. Simply put, that technique, especially in Saskatchewan’s unique circumstances, has been proven to be worse than useless.
There are many reasons for sending persons to prison (for example, the offender refuses to quit harming others) but the conclusion that we should not rely on incarceration to reduce future crime is inescapable. Incarceration tends to increase, not decrease crime.
An effective justice system must measure its success mainly on how well it changes harmful behaviour to social usefulness (step 2). To do that we must reduce those techniques which have the side effect of increasing crime. The money saved should be used to fund those organizations which have shown that (sic) are (or can be) successful at dealing with persons with multiple disadvantages.

We need to aim for effective measures and rely less on trying to frighten the marginalized to transform our justice system into a powerful force for good.
Of course, a provincial government can't solve the problem on its own, particularly in the face of a federal government so eager to make sure that more resources get wasted on needless incarceration.

But there's still plenty that can be done to make the justice system more efficient and more effective. And the more politicians at all level are willing to highlight the absurdity of using public resources to make the public less safe, the better the chances of turning the tide in the long run - no matter how much easier the pandering option might seem for now.

Deep thought

There's no more sure sign of a fiscally-responsible government than its willingness to spend a million dollars in support of nothing.

The reviews are in

Greg Weston:
In the past year, (Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin) Page has been at odds with the Harper government on just about every major economic prognostication, from the size of the projected deficit to the anticipated depth of the recession.

So far, he seems to be batting a thousand, while the Conservatives are proving no more honest with their numbers than the Liberals were.

Clearly, the PM and his control freaks could not allow this sorry state of integrity to continue.

While any successful attempt to stifle Page would be the public's loss, there is something far more dire and dangerous at play here.

Fact is, the meddlesome budget office is only the latest target in a sustained and systematic assault on dissent, led by a prime minister who brooks no criticism from within government.

Leadership 2009 Week in Review - May 3

Last week, I offered my first assessment of the Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidates' chances of victory - and wondered whether much might happen to change the odds. Needless to say, though, the last week has offered plenty of indication that the direction of the race might be changing.

Whatever the outcome of the NDP's investigation into the allegations of improper membership lists coming from the Lingenfelter campaign, the issue seems likely to stop Link in his tracks.

Even in a best realistic case where only a few of the questioned memberships are pulled, the incident seriously undercuts the message of a campaign based on competence and inevitability. And at worst, if the problem goes beyond an isolated individual or two, the Lingenfelter campaign as a whole may end up operating under a cloud during the month when members will make up their minds as to who to support. Which may both shift top-line support in other directions, and cement Link's place at the bottom of the preferential ballot of those whose first-ballot support lies elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Lingenfelter's loss looks to be the other candidates' gain - turning an otherwise quiet week into a huge opportunity. And there may be one more prominent endorsement headed elsewhere as an immediate reaction to the membership list issue.

So with that in mind, here's the updated chart for now, with last week's estimated chances in parentheses.

Candidate 1st Ballot Win Final Ballot Final Ballot Win 4th on 1st Total Win
Dwain Lingenfelter 30 (35) 52 (55) 18 (20) 0 (0) 48 (55)
Deb Higgins 5 (3) 32 (28) 21 (20) 5 (5) 26 (23)
Ryan Meili 3 (2) 34 (32) 20 (18) 10 (10) 23 (20)
Yens Pedersen 0 (0) 6 (5) 3 (2) 47 (45) 3 (2)