Saturday, May 23, 2009

On incentives

Most earlier discussion about the Cons' and Libs' efforts to protect MPs from any riding-level democracy has focused on the disenfranchisement of members and the lack of accountability for MPs. But with the Libs now reporting on the results going into their first deadline for protection, it's worth noting how their scheme may create some perverse incentives for anybody who supports the party but not a local MP.

After all, in trying to create an incentive for MPs to make an effort to work on recruiting members and donors, the Libs have also effectively decreed that the MP will personally benefit from anybody within a riding who signs up for the party. Which raises the question: how long will it be before Lib members and donors end up seeing no choice but to abandon the party en masse in order to get rid of an unpopular MP who would otherwise be protected by their continued involvement?

On donor lists

As mentioned earlier in the week, let's take a closer look at the Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidates' donations received and disclosed between April 9 and May 20, as well as the general financial strategies of the candidates.

While Deb Higgins has only apparently disclosed three new donations (including in additional $500 on top of what Pat Atkinson had previously donated), a couple of them appear potentially significant in framing the reach of her campaign. Her largest new donation was $1,000 from the Saskatchewan Professional Firefighters Association - making for not only her first union donation, but in fact the only union donation to a candidate other than Dwain Lingenfelter. The donation can't necessarily be equated with an endorsement since the association donated an equal amount to Lingenfelter, but it at least signals that one union sees it as worth its while to show support to Higgins as well.

Meanwhile, Higgins' other new donor was Craig Thebaud, who gave $500 to Higgins and isn't listed on any other candidate's donation list. Thebaud is also listed as the Saskatchewan Young New Democrats' Past President for the 2008-09 year - and with Higgins currently short on public endorsements from younger party figures, it'll be interesting to see whether he takes the same risk that former SYND President James Ford did in offering a formal endorsement to Lingenfelter (which led to his removal from the post).

As I noted in my earlier post, Lingenfelter's influx of money included several new individual $5,000 donations, including one from Garry Aldridge. That leaves three that I haven't yet discussed - two of which come from Mathew and Tara Brister. A first bit of research turns up this about what appears to be the same Bristers in the context of a $1 million donation to fund a geophysics professorship at the University of Calgary:
Matt and Tara Brister both graduated from the university’s Department of Geology and Geophysics, which, with input from the oil and gas industry, recently has committed to bringing more innovative education to its undergraduate program. Their gift, part of a three-way funding partnership with the Faculty of Science and the university, was donated through the Calgary Foundation. The department trains the largest number of geoscience undergraduates of any university program in Canada.

Matt Brister is chairman of the mid-size oil company Storm Exploration and CEO of Storm Ventures International, an internationally focused start-up company. Tara Brister is immediate past board president of Alberta Theatre Projects.
The last maximum donation also appears to be from an oil-industry connection of Lingenfelter's: Charles Fischer, the former president and CEO of Nexen.

Other familiar names on Lingenfelter's list of new donors include former SaskTel president and CEO Don Ching, along with MLAs Ron Harper and Andy Iwanchuk. Though it's interesting to note that Lingenfelter still has less donors in caucus than Higgins despite having more supporters.

The main new donation to Ryan Meili's campaign was $5,000 listed as coming from a Breanne Davis. (I'm presuming the correct name is Breanna Davis, as Meili has previously blogged about attending a conference with a medical resident by that name from Prince Albert.) In addition, Meili added MLA David Forbes among others to his donor list.

In the meantime, Meili has also disclosed some additional fund-raising details, while concurrently putting out a call for a "money bomb" seeking donations in multiples of 34 (Meili's age) intended to total over $10,000 by the end of the month.

Finally, I've mentioned the difference in campaign disclosures that has seen Yens Pedersen list donors of exactly $250. But it's worth noting an interesting fact about the contributors added to Pedersen's list as a result. Of the four new names on Pedersen's list at the $250 level, three have given greater amounts to other candidates: Noah Evanchuk and Brendan Pyle to Meili's campaign, and Louise Simard to Higgins'.

Leadership 2009 - Deb Higgins Government Projection

In assessing Deb Higgins' likely performance as premier, the elephant in the room is naturally her track record as Labour Minister. As I've mentioned in my earlier posts, the premier's job necessarily includes both deciding among competing options, and working with stakeholders to implement the best one possition.

Of course, Higgins' public profile prior to the leadership race was based on her work on available hours legislation for part-time workers. And unfortunately, that sequence of events stands out as a textbook example of how not to shepherd an idea from near-implementation into reality. With only one step between already-passed legislation and proclamation, Higgins got caught on the defensive in the face of apparently-unexpected opposition, then wound up alienating supporters as well by giving in to business pressure.

The good news for Higgins supporters is that from her leadership campaign so far, it looks exceedingly unlikely that Higgins would repeat that same type of mistake. Instead, the main question surrounding Higgins now is whether her desire to avoid the same type of situation would cause her to adopt an overly cautious stance rather than leading toward substantial policy innovation and development.

Despite her need to make up ground on Dwain Lingenfelter's front-running campaign, Higgins' policy proposals have been the least ambitious offered by any of the candidates. I've noted before the incremental nature of most of her ideas - but on further review, it's even more striking how her ideas which aren't a matter of pure incremental change on current practice are almost without exception drawn from recent NDP reports or in practice elsewhere in Canada rather than personal vision.

On the bright side, such a strategy might succeed in minimizing possible opposition to those ideas. And to the extent Higgins is able to meet some of the targets within her proposals, that would undoubtedly be a positive outcome for the province.

But the cautious strategy also means that a Higgins government would figure to operate purely within the province's current political window rather than making a substantial effort to shift the terms of the debate. And particularly after a decade and a half of government that was criticized from within for managing rather than leading (and concurrent loss of interest in the party), there's plenty of reason to doubt that NDP members will want to go down that same road again.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Musical interlude

The Tea Party - Fire in the Head

Signs of desperation

For those wondering why the Cons held a fire sale of historically significant silver and china for pennies on the dollar through a government auction site seldom used for those types of goods, rest assured that there's a very good reason: after three years in power, Ottawa-area pawn shops have learned better than to accept their business.

Edit: updated link.

Leadership 2009 - Dwain Lingenfelter Government Projection

In his opposition projection, I noted that the combination of his political history and the leadership campaign itself leave fairly little room for doubt as to how Dwain Lingenfelter would handle the job of leader of the opposition. But notwithstanding the fact that his long political career includes experience in positions all the way up to deputy premier, his possible path in government may actually be one of the great unknowns associated with Lingenfelter.

On the plus side, the same factors which figure to be strengths in opposition as well would be all the more important in government. To start with, while the experience factor has probably been overstated in a number of areas, it figures to be relatively significant in terms of finding the balance as to what's possible within an NDP government. And that advantage is supplemented by the fact that as the lone candidate with strong business connections to go with his links to labour and other stakeholders, Lingenfelter would seem to have far less work to do than the other candidates in terms of building rapport with the groups who might potentially get in the way of policy priorities.

But then, what priorities would Lingenfelter seek to pursue? His leadership campaign policies include a downright fascinating mishmash of proposals consistent with national and global progressive trends with ones grounded largely in Saskatchewan's history, and of concrete commitments with promises to consult toward developing detailed policies later - all mixed in with large quantities of criticism of the Wall government.

That leaves voters in the leadership campaign likely to find something they'll agree with in Lingenfelter's current platform. But there's not much of a common theme apparent to Lingenfelter's policies to date, and it also seems entirely likely that a general election strategy will look substantially different from Lingenfelter's focus for a leadership campaign. Which means that there's plenty of uncertainty as to what Lingenfelter would do when it comes time to decide which priorities to push.

The most obvious risk from that starting point is that once in power, Lingenfelter would push both the party and the province to the right. But there's at least as significant a danger that the absence of a unifying vision would lead Lingenfelter into an everything-as-top-priority strategy which would ultimately figure to satisfy nobody.

In sum, Lingenfelter is as strong a bet as any of the candidates to successfully implement whatever he puts his mind to in government. But there's far more room for doubt as what he'll seek to accomplish - which may be the last thing the Saskatchewan NDP wants after 16 years in power where the party's social democratic vision was all too often an afterthought.

Behind the numbers

In CBC's report on the latest NDP leadership donation numbers, Ryan Meili points out one reason why the numbers disclosed so far don't tell the whole story as to how much the candidates have raised:
Meili, in second place, said if donations of $250 and under are added to his total, he's raised close to $37,000.

He said he's been frugal, but still wants to raise another $20,000 for the rest of the campaign.
Of course, it's tough to say how donations below the reporting level might be distributed among the candidates: one could make equally plausible cases to the effect that Lingenfelter's campaign is likely to be more reliant on higher-dollar contributions, or that the greater time and area covered by his campaign has allowed him a greater opportunity to draw in small donations. But whatever the distribution of smaller donations between the candidates, they figure to be no less important than the reported contributions both as a measure of support and a source of financing for the campaigns.

It's worth noting as well that at least one of the candidates is apparently interpreting the reporting rules slightly differently from his competitors. While the Lingenfelter, Meili and Higgins campaigns have all reported only contributors "over $250" (i.e. left out any contributions of exactly that amount), Yens Pedersen's reported donations include contributors at the $250 level.

On disorganization

UPDATE: As Steven notes in comments, the premise behind the below post is apparently wrong - the issue with the donation numbers was a matter of party processing, not a matter of tracking or reporting by the Lingenfelter campaign. Thanks to Steven for correcting me, and my apologies to the Lingenfelter campaign for drawing the wrong conclusion.

The original post is maintained for posterity below.

Most of the recent writings looking to drag out the Lingenfelter membership controversy - see for example Murray Mandryk's latest - have been based in large part on incredulity at the concept that the Lingenfelter campaign could have come by its mistakes honestly. Surely, the line goes, the people responsible for managing a well-funded frontrunner's campaign couldn't overlook obvious problems with the memberships and make questionable decisions about money management.

But to paraphrase what another politician once said to some effect, yes they can. And for evidence, one need look no further than the sequence of events documented in this post and its updates.

Presuming (as seems to the case) that the Saskatchewan NDP's public postings reflected the information submitted to it by the candidates rather than any further processing at the party level, it was Lingenfelter's campaign which submitted a total nearly $40,000 (or 40% of total donations) below what was actually reflected in its donation list. And if the campaign is that far off the mark in tracking money coming in, it's entirely more plausible that it could lack any real controls over $11,000 moving out.

Likewise, it was Lingenfelter's campaign which apparently managed to miss the presence of two maximum-level donations from the same organization within a few lines of each other on its own reporting documents. Which makes it seem far less improbable that it could have failed to properly check the signatures and other elements of membership forms submitted by somebody else.

Now, one could seek to pry into the donation reporting with the same type of detailed questions which Mandryk and others are raising about the membership controversy. Who was responsible to add the totals and double-check the lists, and why did they fail to do so? Did Lingenfelter's campaign actually receive and cash two cheques from the Canadian Ironworkers, forcing it to turn around and return one of the donations after the duplication was discovered? What exactly is the "Sask. Provincial Trades Association" which doesn't seem to exist anywhere except for Lingenfelter's public disclosures?

But from my standpoint, those smaller issues would miss the more important point. Despite his head start in terms of time, money and volunteers, Lingenfelter has managed to run the least effectively supervised, most amateurish campaign of any of the leadership competitors when it comes to basic functions like handling money and processing memberships.

Moreover, he's resolutely refused to hold anybody accountable even in the face of significant public embarrassment for himself and for the Saskatchewan NDP as a whole. And while it's perhaps understandable that Lingenfelter would be hesitant to make major changes to his organization in the middle of a campaign, it certainly can't be a good sign that the first wave of problems didn't lead to any improved internal oversight.

Which means that NDP members who may have favoured Lingenfelter as the candidate best positioned to put together the party's campaign in 2011 now have every reason to doubt that he actually fits the bill. And that fact may be more damaging to Lingenfelter's aspirations than any accusation of old-style politics.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Leadership 2009 - Ryan Meili Government Projection

When I endorsed Ryan Meili in the leadership race, I did so based in large part on qualities which seem likely to make him extremely effective in government. But for completeness in the projection series, I'll expand a bit on the points made there as to what we might expect from Meili.

Here's the key paragraph from my earlier post:
(I)t takes a rare combination of creativity, judgment and accessibility to reach the best possible outcome on any policy question, due to both the difficulty of choosing between competing options and the importance of working with stakeholders to smooth out the path toward change. And all indications are that Meili has each of those elements in spades, making him the right person for the job of renewing the NDP and leading it into the future.
In sum, then, Meili figures to do well in terms of both setting policy goals, and working with interested parties to make them a reality with genuine public support. Which seem to me to be the basic tasks of any premier from a policy implementation perspective. But then, there are a few other functions of a premier where Meili's campaign to date may offer signals about his likely actions in office.

As much as any political leader wants to be able to manage the public policy agenda and framework for political discussion, it's inevitable that at least some unfavourable issues will have to be dealt with during any term in office. There, Meili's handling of the Lingenfelter membership controversy looks to hint at a strong balance between recognizing principled concerns including a need for transparency, while at the same time not overreaching or inflaming the issues beyond what's called for in the circumstances.

Indeed, one might even say that another Obama parallel can be found in Meili's "no-drama" response to controversy - including both the Lingenfelter controversy, and the story of Meili's Quebec City protest which appeared early in the campaign but held a lifespan of approximately a day. And while the no-drama theme may not have been emphasized publicly as much as some other aspects of Obama's rise, it may well be one of the keys to his success both during the election campaign and during his time in office.

Another area worth considering is management style. Rather than following the all-too-common trend of politicians seeking to micromanage every political and policy move from their supporters, Meili has been comfortable delegating responsibilities within his leadership campaign. Which would figure to translate into a similar strategy with his government: while Meili would obviously set the broad direction, there's every indication that he'll be comfortable allowing cabinet members to exercise some real authority over their portfolios.

Finally, and at least tangentially related to both of the above considerations, I'll note one area where Meili hasn't yet been substantially tested during the course of the leadership race. One of the difficulties which Lorne Calvert faced during his tenure as party leader was the problem of managing challenges to his authority. And while Calvert managed to emerge from those with his leadership intact (in retrospect relying in substantial part on a no-drama strategy of his own), the question of how to manage the egos inevitably present within a successful political party is one which is bound to emerge at some point.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Meili hasn't faced that type of issue within his leadership campaign. And a combination of a loyal set of campaign supporters with a no-drama policy and enough freedom of action to pacify his more ambitious cabinet members would seem likely to minimize any of them that do come up in the future. But while there's plenty of reason for optimism as to how Meili would deal with internal challenges in the future, that looks to be largely uncharted territory.

Of course, if the greatest apparent concern with a candidate's prospect of success in government is that remote, it again speaks well to the likelihood that the NDP will be glad to give Meili the chance to take office. And that's why while the opposition projections might leave room for a matter of stylistic preference between the candidates as to who would perform best as opposition leader, the choice as to who's best suited for government seems to me to be a fairly clear one.

A costly choice

It's generally safe to say that the public is being brutally misinformed on a subject when CanWest's reporting stands out as an example of relative balance in a conversation. But after giving Peter Prebble plenty of space yesterday, its series on nuclear power has allowed Prebble and others to point out that the costs of nuclear are high to start with and only tend to go up from there:
Nuclear reactor construction will fall behind schedule by a few years and go over budget by billions of dollars, say experts.

"None of the reactors have ever come in on time or on budget," said Michal Moore, professor of economics with the University of Calgary and senior fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy.

"Cost overruns are consistent across the world," said Peter Prebble, director of energy and water policy for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society and a former provincial NDP cabinet minister.

"We will pay for these cost overruns on our electrical bills."
Delays and ballooning budgets of nuclear projects are responsible for $15 billion of a $20-billion debt left by Ontario Hydro. Residents now pay a tax on electricity bills to pay off the debt.

"That's quite a legacy to leave," said Prebble.

The actual costs of a nuclear reactor go beyond its normal operations.

If the system is shut down, replacement energy has to be found, said Prebble. "You have to have a backup system to replace the lost base load power. That starts to get expensive, especially if you import additional power."
With the high costs and risk associated with nuclear reactors, private industry will only invest in projects that have the financial backing of governments, that have guaranteed profits and markets and that assume the risk and liabilities for cost overruns, waste disposal, decommissioning and accidents, says the Pembina Institute.
Of course, it's that last point which looks most important: any supposed benefit in bringing in private-sector power generation (whether nuclear or otherwise) is obviously illusory if it's ultimately the public who pays the tab if anything doesn't go according to a corporate plan. And with all indications being that Saskatchewan's citizens stand to be left holding the bill for whatever the Sask Party tries to foist on them, there's every reason to make sure that the move toward a nuclear megaproject is stopped at the earliest opportunity.

Well said

Scott Piatkowski goes to town on the real problem with the Libs under Michael Ignatieff:
With the Liberals’ cavalier abandonment of the promising coalition arrangement of last November, the NDP can also point out that Ignatieff had a practical alternative to the equally unpleasant options of leaving Harper in office and forcing the fourth federal election campaign in five years.

Instead of taking that option, Ignatieff chose to position himself as Dion 2.0 -- claiming to be opposed to the Conservative agenda, while actively ensuring that it gets implemented in every detail. The Liberals think that all they needed was a new face; what they actually need is a new spine.
Of course, at least some Lib supporters have naturally responded with mock outrage that an NDP writer could possibly find the slightest bit of truth in a message that originates with Stephen Harper. Which leads one to wonder where that same outrage was back when the Libs decided to run with the Cons' obviously-false "didn't read the budget" line in the interest of deflecting from their own embarrassment in propping up the Harper government.

Leadership 2009 - Yens Pedersen Government Projection

Following up on my series of posts last week about what we might expect from the Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidates in opposition, let's take the next step and examine what their campaigns might say about their probable actions in power - starting this time with Yens Pedersen.

I noted in Pedersen's opposition projection that his leadership campaign has been based largely on responding in strong terms to existing issues, rather than choosing and emphasizing his own preferred themes.

But while I tend to figure that pattern would replicate itself in opposition, Pedersen's platform seems to me to signal a significantly different strategy in office. Rather than limiting his platform to incremental changes or broad themes, Pedersen has offered up plenty of significant substantive ideas. Which serves as a significant positive for those looking for a more activist government - but also raises questions about which priorities in his platform would come first, and how Pedersen would go about implementing them.

While the former may be difficult to answer based on his platform alone, Pedersen's consistent debate focus on Tommy Douglas' legacy and the renewal of social-democratic values - reflected as well in this blog post - suggest to me that we'd see an effort to move on a more egalitarian economic structure as Pedersen's first order of business. Which would surely be good news for NDP members who have seen the previous two administrations as too timid in the same area.

That leads into the question of how Pedersen would fare in doing so. All indications from the campaign are the Pedersen will have little difficulty in evaluating the options available to him and choosing a positive one to push forward with. But what's less clear is how Pedersen would fare in the process of consultation and persuasion necessary to make significant changes stick, which is always particularly difficult where there's bound to be a strong push on the opposite side.

Of course, Pedersen's willingness to stick to his positions would offer some chance of overcoming a strong counterattack from corporate interests. But in order to get anywhere near the type of changes Pedersen is proposing for the moment, he'd need to develop significantly in the area of persuading soft public support. And some more tendency to defuse issues than Pedersen has shown so far probably wouldn't hurt either.

All in all, Pedersen looks to be one of the better options in the leadership race when it comes to seeking to lead the province in a progressive direction. But it's less certain that he'll actually be able to persuade the province to follow - which combined with his sometimes-combative style would likely make for a highly polarized stay in office.

Oh goody

Apparently the fact that the public will be treated to pro-nuclear propaganda as the starting point for discussion in the Wall government's consultation process left open more risk of authentic public debate than some were prepared to tolerate. So to make sure that only the pro-nuclear side gets a voice, the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce with an assist from CanWest is now trumpeting a 26-page FAQ which helpfully cites sources like Bruce Power, Bruce Power (via the Uranium Development Partnership) and Bruce Power (through the Canadian Nuclear Association) to support the view that nuclear power is all about magical rainbow sparkle ponies, such that we should turn our public treasury over to Bruce Power. And needless to say, it's encouraging people to take over the public consultations with its talking points - since pro-nuclear domination of both the UDP and the stakeholder meetings apparently isn't seen as tilting the playing field quite far enough.

We'll see how long it takes for time at the microphone to be allotted based on the results of a "Why I Like Nuclear Power" essay contest. But while Dan Perrins may have had the best of intentions in taking on the task of chairing what was nominally supposed to be a real public consultation process, at this point the exercise can't be described as anything of the sort.

(Edit: added wording & fixed typo.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Money in the bank

The Saskatchewan NDP has posted updated fund-raising totals for the ongoing leadership race. And while the largest story seems to be the lack of movement overall, the fund-raising totals look to be matching the current candidate activity in determining who's moved to the front of the pack.

The total fund-raising in disclosed amounts over the last month and a half are as follows:

Deb Higgins: $2,000 (for a total of $16,000)
Dwain Lingenfelter: $9,350 ($65,600)
Ryan Meili: $8,615 ($22,315)
Yens Pedersen: $1,000 ($4,100)

On a first glance, it looks like some of the totals may need double-checking. In particular, I'm not entirely sure how Lingenfelter's total raised can be as low as it is when on a cursory look he's listed at least four new $5,000 donors. (For the record, one of those is campaign manager Garry Aldridge, who has of course received plenty of attention lately due to his role in the membership controversy.)

But while it'll be worth taking a closer look at the newly-closed donations both to confirm the amounts and examine the donors involved, it does seem that it's Lingenfelter and Meili edging ahead of their competitors going into next month's convention.

Update: The donations page has now been updated to show Lingenfelter with $104,150 in total donations. But there are still some oddities in his list: the Canadian Ironworkers are listed as making two maximum donations of $5,000 (thanks to a reader for the tip), and as far as I can tell the "Sask. Provincial Trades Association" also looks to be a duplication of the Building and Construction Trades Council. So there may be more corrections yet to come.

Update II: And now one of the Canadian Ironworkers donations has been removed from "v3", with Lingenfelter's total bumped down to $99,150. This too can't be doing wonders for anybody's confidence that Lingenfelter's camp is particularly strong in the management department.

Update III: See Steven's comment as to what actually happened - apparently the changes were due to inputting issues at the party level rather than the Lingenfelter campaign.

On experience

I've already discussed my reasons for supporting Ryan Meili in the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race. But I'll take a moment to expand on my take on what seems to be the main argument against both Meili and Yens Pedersen, that being the question of experience.

It's tempting to merely point out that experience is one of the few areas where any candidate will be definition improve with time. So to the extent that experience is seen as the strongest argument against a candidate, that tends to signal a contender with a substantial amount of potential to begin with.

That said, there are some circumstances where past experience can more plausibly be seen as a decisive factor. Particularly in a minority or otherwise unstable government where an election might happen at any time, it might make sense to choose a leadership candidate based in large part on one's ability to transition into campaign mode at any moment.

Fortunately for Meili and Pedersen, though, that isn't the case as matters now stand in Saskatchewan.

Instead, we're nearly two and a half years away from the province's next trip to the polls in 2011. Which means that there will be plenty of time for any new leader to develop within the role - meaning that any experience gap which exists now can be narrowed significantly by the time the new leader's public impression will be tested at the polls. And that time figures to present an ideal chance for the new leader to develop at a manageable pace.

The first order of business for the summer would almost certainly be to build on the new enthusiasm generated during the course of the leadership campaign to engage with members from all leadership camps - making for a natural extension of what each candidate has already been doing throughout the leadership race. That would then presumably be followed by a by-election to get into the Legislature, offering a trial run at electoral preparation and image-building for the leader personally. And from there, the new leader would get two years in the Legislature to develop a feel for challenging Wall, while overseeing the party's policy development process and internal renewal with support from the party as a whole (including those with more experience within his or her own camp as well as the rest of the party).

So the new leader will get to transition from consolidating the party's membership gains, to winning support in a riding, to appealing to the broader public across the province. And likewise the immediate opposition will go from virtually nothing for the summer, to a set of riding candidates this fall, to a substantial amount of jousting with Wall before the stakes get raised in a general election.

But what if Wall tries to maneuver his way into an early election as Stephen Harper did federally? While Harper went relatively unscathed due to the fact that a minority Parliament had given rise to election talk all along, it's hard to see how the Sask Party would be seen as anything short of jaw-droppingly clueless and out of touch if it gave up a majority mandate near or before the halfway point after passing its own fixed election date law. And the few issues which could provide even a slight pretense that an earlier election was required (say, a claim that Wall needs a new mandate to proceed with the construction of a nuclear reactor) would tend to be ones which make the NDP leader's job easier in rallying opposition to the Sask Party.

All in all, then, the NDP is ideally positioned to let a new leader learn from the wealth of knowledge within the party for an extended period of time before the next election, rather than needing to lower its sights as a matter of immediate convenience. Which will hopefully result in the party's members taking a closer look at what it is that they're ultimately hoping for - and voting for the candidate who delivers the best chance of reaching that best-case result.

On voluntary measures

As I've noted in previous posts, the NDP's response to the Lingenfelter membership controversy - consisting of quickly commissioning as thorough an investigation as was possible in the compressed time frame of a leadership race, and expressing every willingness to cooperate with any additional investigation - has generally been above reproach. But there's one piece of the party's position which may be problematic, particularly to the extent it mirrors some of the excuses out of the Lingenfelter camp for failing to take any action against the individuals involved:
Sources have identified the volunteer at the centre of the allegations as Ernest Morin, a Meadow Lake resident and former president of the aboriginal wing of the NDP in the late 1990s.

Morin's name was made public last week, which McDonald described as "unfortunate."

"He is a volunteer. We all rely on volunteers to do many, many, many things," she said.
Similarly, Lingenfelter seems to have take the position that the volunteer roles held by Morin and Garry Aldridge preclude any accountability for the two individuals who have been found to have been involved - Morin deliberately (though it's unclear whether he ever held a formal title), and Aldridge through a lack of oversight as Lingenfelter's campaign manager. As I've heard the position stated, one can't fire a volunteer.

And it's true enough that the precise effect of firing a paid employee may be different front that which applied in the case of volunteers. But that's a far cry from saying that a campaign doesn't have any ability to move or remove its volunteer workers where a problem arises. Whether a particular individual is paid or not, it's obviously in Lingenfelter's hands to assign titles within his campaign, or to state that a particular volunteer should be kept away from a particular type of task.

From that starting point, the question is then whether the better stance is to throw up one's hands and say it's impossible to do anything about problems within a campaign, or to set an expectation that volunteers will be placed in positions that they're capable of handling - and in turn will act reasonably when in those positions. And when the choice is put in those terms, I don't see what benefit would come from leaving individuals in positions where they're already publicly seen to have failed at their responsibilities.

Likewise, the party shouldn't consider it a problem for an individual volunteer to have his name revealed in the face of an issue like this one. In fact, it seems to me that it's protecting the name of a volunteer who engages in dubious practices which seems more likely to produce negative outcomes.

After all, as long as the party preserved anonymity for Morin by simply labelling the person responsible for the membership controversy as an anonymous "volunteer", the result was to create a negative image of the concept of volunteering for the NDP in general. And it can hardly be a positive result if wrongdoers see themselves as protected by a commitment to anonymity, while all other volunteers for the party bear a share of the embarrassment that results.

In contrast, with Morin's name public, it's far easier to draw a distinction between the vast majority of volunteers who have honestly and selflessly worked to help out each of the leadership campaigns, and the single individual whose actions have embarrassed himself and his candidate. Which would seem to provide better incentives both in terms of the type of person likely to volunteer their time and effort, and in terms of the decisions made by those already within the NDP camp.

In closing, I'll note that the repeated emphasis on the value of volunteering within the NDP might itself serve as a useful jumping-off point to ask what measures the party and its leadership candidates should be taking to make sure that volunteers stay within the party's standard of acceptable behaviour.

While Lingenfelter has discussed importing the types of requirements which exist in other sectors to constituency renewal, other organizations which include some volunteer component tend to have a set of policies and training requirements which apply to those volunteers, along with clear lines of accountability for supervision. And while it may be a bit late for the leadership campaigns to start down that road, there's plenty of time for the NDP to discuss the issue before the next time a major volunteer effort is required.

Of course, neither the NDP nor any of the leadership camps should want to impose undue barriers on those who are interested in helping out. And one can't set exactly the same standards for volunteers as for paid workers. But it's ultimately better for everybody if both actual and potential volunteers have a good idea of what's expected of them - and one could hardly ask for a more striking example of the costs to the party where that isn't the case.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On turnabout

To the surprise of nobody who's actually been paying attention, the NDP has announced that it has held onto the forms involved in the Lingenfelter membership controversy, and is entirely willing to turn them over to the police if they want to investigate.

With that out of the way, it's presumably our turn to apply the Sask Party's standard of evidence to the latest revelations about how the Wall government has stacked its nuclear consultations. So let's all express our deep and earnest concern that the Sask Party has been bought and paid for throughout the process - and let it be made clear that if so, then the Sask Party's fitness for office has been sold out along with it.

On endorsements

After offering up my own endorsement yesterday, I'll note that there have been a few other updates in the endorsement department recently which send some interesting signals about where the candidates see themselves going into the home stretch.

Let's start with Deb Higgins, who managed to make it through the entire month of April without a new endorsement before unveiling the support of former MP Ron Fisher last week. And while Fisher certainly doesn't make for a bad addition to her list, it's fairly striking that Higgins' most recent endorsement carries a substantially lower profile than some of the ones she was able to win earlier in the campaign.

Meanwhile, Dwain Lingenfelter was able to secure the endorsement of former MLA Doreen Hamilton today. But while it's not a huge surprise for another of Lingenfelter's former caucus-mates to show her support, the choice of wording used in the endorsement itself may raise some eyebrows.

In addition to the usual message about experience and 2011, Hamilton's statement specifically points to Lingenfelter's "commitment to rebuild the New Democratic Party (and) encourage a new generation of candidates and leaders at every level of the Party". Which is interesting both in the fact that it comes from a longtime MLA and cabinet minister rather than a member of the "new generation" itself, and in that it seems to represent a shift in strategy for a campaign which had been fairly quiet on questions of generational renewal since the two younger candidates had joined the race.

Finally, I'll point out one noteworthy difference between Ryan Meili's endorsements page and those of Higgins and Lingenfelter. While the latter two have limited their highlighted endorsements to effective appeals to authority in the form of well-known NDP figures or unions, Meili's page mixes that type of endorsement with others chosen for their content rather than any prestige associated with the speaker.

On the cynical side, that could be seen as a convenient way of padding an endorsement list, particularly for those mostly interested in seeing who's lined up in which camp. But it also signals some dedication to the idea that it isn't only higher-ups within the party whose opinions are worth highlighting - and one has to figure that more members will find something that reflects their own thinking in Meili's variety of endorsements than in the more limited range of ideas pointed to by the other candidates.

Update: And there's another endorsement for Lingenfelter with a youth-oriented slant.

Burning question

How long will it take before the Cons start lamenting that they couldn't possibly have been aware of any issues with the Chalk River nuclear reactor before today?

Update: Meanwhile, it shouldn't come as much surprise how many times Chalk River is mentioned in CanWest's story on nuclear safety.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Leadership 2009 - The Endorsement

At the start of the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race, my impression was that there would be far more of a gap in coverage from outside the campaigns than there would be a gap for work within them. And from that perception - which seems to have been accurate in retrospect - I'd planned to stay effectively neutral in order to focus my attention on discussing the race from an outside perspective. That is, barring any one candidate standing out from a strong pack of contenders.

But while all of the campaigns have had plenty of positive material to offer, there's one candidate who has indeed stood head and shoulders above the rest. And so, in what surely won't come as a surprise to those who have followed this blog closely, I'll be endorsing Ryan Meili for the leadership of the Saskatchewan NDP.

So how did I get to that point? The first step was the impression that a movement of young, progressive NDP members was starting to coalesce behind Meili. In a political scene where I've seen far too little coordination among younger groups of politically-involved friends over the past few years, the opportunity to join forces behind a strong leadership candidate naturally held plenty of appeal - and the same has apparently held true for many others.

Needless to say, that movement has done nothing but grow since the start of the leadership race. And rather than merely serving as an outlet for younger party members, Meili has also managed to put together a team of supporters which looks to be as well positioned as any to govern the province - hopefully starting in 2011, and for a long time to come.

But then, a movement's success in actually reaching its goals is ultimately limited by how much its leader listens to those involved. And even while Meili has been busy trying to get his name and positions known through the leadership campaign, he's shown a relentless commitment to engaging with the people around him - whether in person or through his online campaign hub, which has featured a collaborative effort at developing policies and other campaign materials along with active discussions throughout the campaign.

Of course, it hasn't hurt matters that Meili has unveiled plenty of innovative policy ideas of his own. But it takes a rare combination of creativity, judgment and accessibility to reach the best possible outcome on any policy question, due to both the difficulty of choosing between competing options and the importance of working with stakeholders to smooth out the path toward change. And all indications are that Meili has each of those elements in spades, making him the right person for the job of renewing the NDP and leading it into the future.

Now, this endorsement shouldn't be taken as a slight toward the other candidates, each of whom offers significant strengths as well: Lingenfelter with his experience and command of policy, Higgins with her commitment and tireless effort, and Pedersen with his own new ideas and strong policy voice. And whoever wins the leadership race, there's little room for doubt that the NDP will remain the better option for Saskatchewan voters going into the next election and beyond.

But there's an important difference between merely remaining the top choice among Saskatchewan's political parties as they now stand, and striving to build the best party and province we can. And I'll be voting for Ryan Meili - and encouraging others to do the same - in order to take the opportunity to develop and implement a new social democratic vision for Saskatchewan.

(Edit: fixed wording.)

On response patterns

Following up on this morning's post, I'll mention a few more broad observations on the Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidates' contributions to the latest issue of the Commonwealth.

Not surprisingly, all of the candidates appear to have directed a fair amount of attention to their Commonwealth answers, and there aren't a lot of areas of disagreement between the candidates on the issues canvassed. But there are still a few trends that turn up within the answers, as while the candidates' respective ways of speaking and thinking may have been less obvious in a fast-moving debate, they can be seen far more easily when answers to the same questions are placed side by side.

For Deb Higgins, the most striking aspect of her responses is the conversational style used even in her writing. While the other candidates' answers appear to have been more heavily edited, Higgins' sound basically like a transcription of an off-the-cuff response to the questions, typically mirroring the wording of the question and then responding in fairly general terms. That adds a certain folksiness to her responses, but also limits the amount of information she's able to cover in the limited space provided.

Dwain Lingenfelter's responses appear to break down largely into three groups. For most of the questions related to public policy, Lingenfelter is able to point to an existing policy on the issue, resulting in a thorough and neatly worded response. But for those areas where Lingenfelter lacks a current policy, his campaign doesn't seem to have been interested in getting his opinion on the record: in addition to the responses noted in my post this morning, his response to a question about revenue-sharing agreements with First Nations similarly contains little beyond a vague expression of support.

Meanwhile, Lingenfelter's answers on questions about party development are particularly noteworthy for their top-down feel. While his response to the candidate development issue looks to be the most obvious example of this (while being strong otherwise), others include statements that constituencies who meet membership targets should be "rewarded by the Party and the Leader", and that he would be "demanding more" of others within the party when it comes to outreach efforts.

In Ryan Meili's answers, one finds another point of similarity to the Obama campaign to add to those that have been identified earlier. While Meili's high-level campaign themes are likewise on the broad side (if perhaps not as much so as Obama's "hope" and "change"), his campaign also parellel Obama's commitment to evidence-based policy-making, linking that to outreach and member input as the necessary components of policy development.

As for Yens Pedersen, his answers live up to one of the promises made in his bio (written by his wife Maureen), as he provides concise explanations of complex issues raised in the questions. In particular, his answers on various forms of power generation manage to pack significant background information in with strong statements of principle, offering readers both a strong indication of Pedersen's plans and an explanation for them.

As a closing note, the Commonwealth also offers one other area of comparison aside from the candidates' text, as three of the four candidates also took out ads in the issue (Yens Pedersen being the exception). And two of those followed effectively the same strategy: Dwain Lingenfelter's used the back page to present a message nearly identical to that found in his campaign mailer, while Deb Higgins' half-page ad matches the front of her mailer word for word.

Then there's Ryan Meili's half-page ad, which includes a couple of twists. In addition to some of the same biographical information found on his mailer, Meili's ad includes a new list of policy priorities along with a theme ("Dream Big") not found in his mailer. And perhaps most interestingly, roughly a third of Meili's ad space consists of an idea box inviting members to send him their ideas for the party.

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.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Leadership 2009 Week in Review - May 17

This time last week, the release of the Hale report last week looked to have the potential to radically reshape the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race. But it's instead served only to strengthen a couple of the forces that have been developing since the start of the race.

Dwain Lingenfelter's combined response of trying to declare the membership controversy closed despite a need for accountability within his campaign and claiming that it didn't take the leadership race seriously enough to think it needed to bring in votes looks to have largely satisfied his true believers. But while the result should be a boost in Lingenfelter's prospect of a first-ballot win, the same combination looks to be making him increasingly unlikely to pull in support from other campaigns on any later ballot.

Meanwhile, the main beneficiary of any Link fatigue looks to be Ryan Meili, as a late-campaign theme has essentially fallen in his lap to frame the rest of the leadership race.

So with those developments in mind, here are my latest (again, 100% pure guesswork) projections as to the possible outcomes:

Candidate 1st Ballot Win Final Ballot Final Ballot Win 4th on 1st Total Win
Dwain Lingenfelter 38 (35) 43 (44) 10 (12) 1 (2) 48 (47)
Ryan Meili 3 (3) 34 (33) 23 (21) 6 (8) 26 (24)
Deb Higgins 2 (4) 29 (30) 22 (23) 3 (3) 24 (27)
Yens Pedersen 0 (0) 8 (9) 2 (2) 47 (45) 2 (2)