Saturday, December 10, 2011

Leadership 2012 Candidate Rankings - December 10, 2011

While there was plenty to talk about following the NDP's first leadership debate, the effect of such an early event on the candidates' long-term prospects was bound to be limited. And so the most-discussed event of the campaign so far hasn't led to much change from last week's rankings.

1. Thomas Mulcair (1)

Of course, part of the reason why not much has changed is that the front-runners mostly lived up to their billing. And Mulcair in particular strengthened his position this week with both a strong debate performance and a key policy launch. Which means that while there's still some question as to how he'll do in attracting both new and current members, Mulcair isn't far from being classified in a top tier of his own.

2. Peggy Nash (2)

Nash generally held her position in the first debate, presenting arguably the strongest economic message of any candidate in English while making a passable showing in French. And that's enough to keep her in the #2 spot for now - though hopefully we'll see a pivot from endorsement announcements to more direct interaction between Nash and members as the race develops.

3. Brian Topp (3)

Similarly, Topp largely achieved what I figured to be his main task for the first policy debate, holding his own on both ideas and presentation (the occasional distracting movement aside). But while I can see the strategic reason for his choice to "bump gloves" with Paul Dewar, the sense that Topp is being more combative toward his partymates than other contenders may cut into his ability to win over needed later-ballot support.

4. Paul Dewar (4)

I'll avoid dropping Dewar based on an unimpressive debate showing, particularly since his policy release on linking per-vote funding to a party's slate of female candidates seems to have been fairly well-received so far. But at this point, I'd place Dewar closer to the candidates below him than the ones above.

5. Niki Ashton (6)

And by standing out among the middle tier of candidates at the start of the campaign, Ashton looks to have a reasonable chance to elevate herself in the field - particularly if she can show enough growth in her own presentation (ideally going from her default "new politics" theme to a bit more off-the-cuff discussion) to assuage questions about her age.

6. Romeo Saganash (5)

Saganash drops because of Ashton's strong debate performance rather than any particular problem on his part. But again, there are only so many opportunities for Saganash to live up to his potential as a candidate - and even if health was a factor last weekend, the loss of one of chances those can only narrow Saganash's path to victory.

7. Nathan Cullen (7)

For now, Cullen's strong debate performance doesn't change a lot in the larger scheme of things. But if there's some indication that he's pulling in support from outside the NDP's base, that will go a long way toward moving him up the list.

8. Martin Singh (9)

No, Singh didn't wow anybody in his first chance to go toe to toe with his competitors. But nor did he appear the least bit out of place - and that offers reason for hope that he can win over members as the leadership campaign progresses.

9. Robert Chisholm (8)

This week's endorsement by Howard Hampton at least gives Chisholm enough of a boost to keep his campaign from fading away entirely. But Chisholm won't move substantially higher than this position until he demonstrates some ability to do more than read French text with an English pronunciation - and it's hard to see how he'll get there during the course of the leadership campaign if Sunday's performance was the result of several months of tutelage.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Gerald Caplan documents the U.S. Republicans' refusal to live in a reality-based society, while hinting that the same philosophy is no less present in the Harper Cons.

- Meanwhile, Bruce Johnstone comments on this week's Canadian Wheat Board ruling as an indication that the Cons also believe themselves to be above both the law and the rule of law. And Ken Rosaasen notes that even the Cons' usual obsession with property rights is taking a back seat to their determination to demolish the Wheat Board.

- Thomas Walkom points out the dangers and failures in the Cons' latest U.S. border deal.

- Finally, Bill Curry reports on the Cons' push for ever-deeper cuts to the federal government. And it's well worth noting that this is exactly the danger involved in the Libs trying to raise an issue about election promises deferred as a result of an extended period of federal deficits: what better excuse could the Cons ask for in seeking to hack away at public programs in the name of yet another set of tax goodies for the people who need them least?

Friday, December 09, 2011

Musical interlude

Sneaker Pimps - Waterbaby

Friday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Jeffrey Simpson compliments the NDP's leadership contenders for dealing with the issue of inequality, but rightly notes there's a long way left to go:
Good for the NDP leadership candidates for talking about income inequality in Canada.

At their first leadership debate last weekend, and on their websites, some of the candidates have made proposals about reducing it. The ideas are broad brush, of course, although Brian Topp has a detailed list of big tax increases proposed for the wealthiest people and corporations. But at least the candidates are willing to underscore what has been a frequently ignored challenge.
Inequality has been growing in Canada for many years; correcting for it will not be easy or fast. The factors making Canada a less equal society are deep and complex. Some are beyond the reach of government.
In Canada, as elsewhere, taxes and social benefits directed at the least well off helped mitigate inequality. They still do, but not as effectively as before, and less effectively than in most OECD countries.

Inequality has been increasing in Canada, especially since the mid-1990s. Before then, the ratio between the wealthiest and poorest Canadians was 8 to 1. It’s now 10 to 1. Top marginal tax rates have fallen here, as they have in many OECD countries. Benefits that used to be targeted at the poorest have either been reduced or spread across many income bands.

Other factors have played a role. More part-time work has meant lower earned income compared with full-time work. Within the work force, even among those with full-time jobs, wage inequality has spread. The higher-paying jobs are paying more; others are not.

We’ll see more disparities as companies shed defined-benefit pension plans for defined-contribution plans. They’re insisting on the change for their own bottom lines today, but their employees are likely to suffer later.
We’ve talked a lot in Canada about inequalities among regions, gender and ethnicities, and made progress on these fronts. Income inequality, however, has slipped beneath the radar.
- One might have thought the massive amounts of money spent marketing the tar sands would include at least some effort to back up the oft-repeated (if never justified) assertion that constant development is environmentally sustainable. But we shouldn't be surprised that the Cons don't care if no such evidence exists.

- Adam Radwanski offers some reasons for Ontario to follow Alberta's lead in moving its fixed election dates to the spring. But I'm surprised that in raising the topic, he doesn't note the glut of campaigns set for the fall of 2015 (and the likelihood of overlapping provincial and federal elections) as making for another independent reason as to why provinces should look at modifying their schedules.

- Finally, Jesse points to NDPstar as a grassroots expression of the NDP's principles. We'll have to see how much traction this particular effort can develop, but it's undoubtedly a plus to know that members aren't looking solely to the leadership race as a means of discussing the NDP's future.

On manual adjustments

For all the failings of a Con government that combines extreme centralization with an utter lack of vision, let's give Stephen Harper credit for successfully bludgeoning satire to death. Just this week, I considered this to be at least somewhat of an exaggeration in the department of "using what's been criticized or outlawed as a template for action":
Mia Rabson notes that the Cons are looking to outlaw on First Nations exactly the type of negative and deceptive politics they practice for themselves. But in noting that the practice is similarly outlawed in federal election campaigns, Rabson points to an even bigger issue: the Cons are apparently looking to what's banned during election campaigns as their playbook for the next four years.
And yet, here's Dan Gardner sharing a story from Donald Savoie:
Savoie's passionate condemnation of centralization didn't slow it down. In an odd way, it may even have contributed to it.

"An adviser to a prime minister asked me if I'd sign a copy of Governing from the Centre," Savoie says. "I leafed through it and I noticed that he had read it, he had underlined a few things. And I said, 'Now you're going to do things differently?' He said, 'No, no, no. We use it as a manual.' "

Savoie wouldn't tell me who the adviser was but he confirmed that the prime minister he worked for is Conservative. "And you can now assume which one I'm talking about," he added with a laugh.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Thursday Evening Links

This and that for your evening reading.

- pogge points out yet another Con slush fund, as public money earmarked for green infrastructure was instead diverted to oil, gas and forestry companies.

- Meanwhile, the Cons' attempt to paint a proliferation of oil pipelines as a matter of national unity leaves little room for doubt that we can expect future appropriations to similarly find their way into the hands of the corporate resource sector.

- Speaking of which, Bill Doyle helpfully warns the people of the province that's handed him hundreds of millions of dollars that they'd better not get uppity about claiming a share of their resources for themselves.

- Finally, Andrew Jackson points out that the Canadian banks cited as models of stability received plenty of bailouts of their own. Though it's well worth noting that Canada's freebies may well have been less a matter of the banks actually needing them than a desire to make sure they weren't any less rewarded for global financial turmoil than their foreign counterparts.

Leadership 2012 Candidate Profile - Romeo Saganash

Romeo Saganash was the second candidate to enter the NDP's leadership race, and remains one of the contenders with a plausible path to a strong victory. But how likely is it that Saganash can reach that result?


On paper, there isn't another candidate in the race with a personal story that holds a candle to Saganash's, both in general and as a contrast to the governing party the NDP needs to challenge. Saganash is a residential school survivor looking to highlight Cree values while the Cons work to dismantle any trace of communal life; he's a trail-blazer in First Nations accomplishment seeking to lead a party that's similarly working to achieve unprecedented success; he's an experienced negotiator preaching constructive engagement in the wake of the most divisive federal government in recent memory. And that compelling personal narrative makes Saganash the candidate with the most potential to carry a transformational message through the leadership campaign.

And as an added bonus, Saganash has shown enough personal toughness to work through a racial appeal by his Bloc competitor in May's general election.


But a candidate needs to be able to convert theoretical strengths into actual popular support. And Saganash seems to have some distance yet to travel on that front.

To date, the concerns about Saganash have been based on relatively minor issues like a momentary misstep on sovereignty and an unimpressive English-language performance in the party's first debate. But the broader question facing his campaign is whether he's in fact sending a message of change strongly enough to set himself apart from the field - as Saganash's limited history in the NDP means he'll need to bring in a large amount of outside support to reach the upper tier of candidates.

Key Indicator

With that in mind, I'd keep a particularly close eye on Saganash's level of popular recognition. As long as he's perceived as just one of the pack, he likely doesn't have much of a path to victory - but if enough of the general public gets to know him as a household name, then that likely signals that he's managed to develop enough of a profile to bring in the outside support he needs.

Key Opponent

While Saganash hasn't yet shown a lot of focus on a transformational message, Niki Ashton has been quite consciously presenting exactly that. And the interplay between Saganash and Ashton will be fascinating as the campaign progresses: the two share similar bases of support (northern and First Nations organizations to go with a strong appeal to younger and newer voters) and will almost certainly need the other's outreach efforts to contribute to any eventual victory, but Saganash in particular needs to stay ahead of Ashton to benefit from the two candidates' mutually reinforcing themes.

Plausible Outcomes

Best-case: Early-ballot win based on influx of new voters
Worst-case: Bottom-three finish as campaign fails to gather momentum

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Monica Townson analyzes the Cons' private-sector pension scheme and determines that it doesn't add anything to the privileged treatment already granted to saving by those who can afford it.

- pogge points out that as part of Peter MacKay's desperation in trying to shut down discussion about his personal use of military helicopters, he's doubling down in misusing public resources for his own personal ends.

- While we're a few years away from having actual data play any role whatsoever in federal crime policy, Neal Hall reports on some rather compelling evidence that the Cons' megaprisons are the last place we should be spending our public money.

- Finally, Crawford Kilian puts the deprivation facing Attawapiskat and other long-neglected First Nations in context.

New column day

Here, on the need to make sure that any lobbying legislation in Saskatchewan doesn't merely create new ways for an already-insular government to peddle access and shut out dissent.

For further reading, Murray Mandryk has discussed the issue as well in a couple of recent columns. And I've posted before about some of the problems with the federal system.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Wednesday Evening Links

Assorted content for your evening reading.

- Alex Himelfarb finds a few positives in the Cons' ramming their dumb-on-crime bill through the House of Commons:
Thankfully many are not willing to “get over it”. How heartening, for example, to hear announce that they were simply regrouping for the next stage of their campaign for better justice policy. So, here are some reasons not to turn the page, instead to continue the fight.

1) Those who spoke to Parliamentary Committees, wrote letters and op eds, called their MPs or took to the streets have made a difference.

All the opposition parties opposed this bill, rejected the smears that they were “soft on crime”, and focused on public safety rather than easy politics. It has not always been so. And that means that the options are finally being put before Canadians, options for a Canada that is safer, not meaner.

Premiers, whatever their views on the bill, are demanding a more respectful federalism where they – who must administer the legislation once passed – should be engaged at the outset so that they can bring their views and experience to bear. And several are arguing that they should not have to reallocate money – say from health and education – to pay for the costs of more incarceration and more prisons.

And through the efforts of dozens of organizations, many more Canadians are now paying attention. And that can only be a good thing.
4) In fighting this kind of legislation we are also fighting for a different kind of politics. Who of us isn’t sometimes afraid, especially for our kids, often angry and horrified at some of the terrible crimes we see on the news, and moved by the suffering of victims and their families. And we know our own frailties, that we can confuse justice and revenge, that our anger can blot out the evidence, that we sometimes lash out and act against our own best interests.

Fighting against this punitive bill is fighting against a politics that exploits our frailties rather than appealing to what is best in us.

5) And fighting against bad policy is good for the soul.
- Meanwhile, Dan Gardner reminds us that the Cons' determination to push hard-right legislation doesn't mean that the public actually agrees with any of the policies.

- Mia Rabson notes that the Cons are looking to outlaw on First Nations exactly the type of negative and deceptive politics they practice for themselves. But in noting that the practice is similarly outlawed in federal election campaigns, Rabson points to an even bigger issue: the Cons are apparently looking to what's banned during election campaigns as their playbook for the next four years.

- Finally, both Frances Russell and Chris Selley point out that any moral compass the Cons may once have possessed is long gone.

On common concerns

Most of the discussion of Samara's report on political disengagement has focused on the responses of non-voters. But perhaps more interesting is the fact that the disengaged and the currently-engaged seem to have virtually identical critiques of how our political system fails to function:
"Almost without fail, the disengaged we spoke to described themselves as political outsiders," the study says. "On the basis of their experiences, they described government, bureaucrats, politicians and the media as working for someone else and, therefore, irrelevant to their needs."

Many of the disengaged didn't always feel powerless, the study says. But if they had a concern that needed to be resolved - everything from a speed bump on their street to day care for their children - "they found that no one was responsive."
Like non-voters, engaged citizens had little positive to say about politics. "Like the disengaged, they used words such as 'untrustworthy,' 'corruption,' and 'mismanagement' to characterize the political system," the study says. "But the engaged groups seemed to remain hopeful that things could be better."

While frustrated at times by the political system's response, members of the engaged group "kept picking up the phone, knocking on doors and sending emails until they saw results."
Of course, there figures to be far more work done in convincing voters who have decided the political process is futile. But Samara's conversations suggest that there's a massive potential constituency for anybody who can successfully convince doubtful voters that it's possible for politics to result in real positive results for ordinary people (as a matter of substance rather than sloganeering). And that in turn should offer hope for the engaged group that its work can lead to significant results if it helps to make that case.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Duncan Cameron points out how the Cons are copying the Republican economics that have led the U.S. to ruin:
The Harper Conservatives model their economic policies on beliefs held dear by American Republicans: just lower taxes, and reduce government, and business will create the wealth.

With this approach, not only is income becoming less equal as the OECD just noted, Canadians and Americans are not becoming wealthier. The "give business a tax break" and the "let the invisible hand of the market do the rest" policies are not improving life for Canadians or Americans.
There is a role for active government in creating wealth, working with trade unions and using knowledge invested in the workforce, and local resources to create new relationships between employers and communities.

Setting out performance criteria for business, taxing business income, and re-investing in businesses that create wealth in Canada is the way to go. Of course to get there is going to require a change in government, and a new approach by the next Canadian government. The American Republican growth model hold out little hope for a better future in Canada.
- No, it shouldn't be news that the Cons have no qualms about setting up shadow MPs to try to attack incumbents. But it's interesting to note that they're still trying the tactic when their previous efforts have failed so miserably.

- Lost in the midst of plenty of justified frustration with the Cons' climate-change obstruction and marginalization is a remarkable admission from Peter Kent:
Environment Minister Peter Kent has pledged to the United Nations that Canada won’t pull out of the Kyoto climate treaty during the final days of the Durban conference – but he refuses to rule out a decision to withdraw shortly after the global talks wrap up.

Asked about Canada’s rumoured withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, Mr. Kent said he assured the UN that he won’t unleash any “unfortunate surprises” before the end of the Durban conference Friday.
And we should be entirely willing to echo Kent's view that it would be both unfortunate and surprising for a country of Canada's stature to simply tear up an international agreement on climate change - particularly as Kent plans to do exactly that later this month.

- Finally, if we didn't have enough reason to worry about the Saskatchewan Party's financial mismanagement, surely the revelation that the Premier apparently can't make ends meet on his publicly-funded salary (and thus need to take taxpayer-subsidized dollars from his party as well) should raise some concerns.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cats amid chaos.

Zero sum

CBC's story on the double role that the Regina Qu'Appelle Health Region's head of surgery Mark Ogrady was set to play with a private surgical clinic whose very existence depends on siphoning patients away from the public system is well worth a look.

But let's note another important side to the story beyond any individual conflict of interest. After all, could we possibly ask for a more obvious example as to how private health delivery relies on poaching needed workers from the public sector, rather than adding any capacity whatsoever to our health system?

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Stephen Maher points out the type of government that we've come to count on under the ultra-controlling Harper political model:
This presidentialization of the Canadian system is worrying, not because of some fetishistic attachment to the trappings of Parliament, but because it allows for greater centralization than is found in other democracies.

In the United States, Obama can't act without Congress. In Britain, prime ministers can never impose iron discipline on their huge, leaky caucuses.

A better comparison to the current Canadian situation might be Russia, where Vladimir Putin is able to act without concern for the formal role of institutions, although in Canada there are a series of extra-governmental actors — the premiers, the courts and the media — that would prevent any government from going too far.

And we have watchdogs — the auditor general, the parliamentary budget officer and the like — but according a count by Queen's University Professor Ned Franks, Harper has fired or forced out 10 watchdogs, which tends to cow the others.
- And Harper's total control over his ministers - with people who theoretically hold authority over a department prevented from saying a word that isn't pre-approved by the PMO - figures to have plenty to do with Saskboy's observation that lies simply don't matter when it comes to the Cons.

- Liisa Schofield and John Clarke point out how the McGuinty Liberals have not only embraced the Harris PCs' cuts to Ontario's social spending, but also made matters worse with a decade of erosion of the province's already-low social assistance levels.

- Finally, William Watson presents a typical faith-in-corporatism-based attack on any discussion of reasonable tax levels. So let's throw the question back at Watson: does he actually have any evidence (other than free-market dogma dressed up as "common sense") to counter the argument that the optimal level of taxation on high-income individuals is the one which maximizes revenue?

[Edit: fixed wording.]

Leadership 2012 Candidate Profile - Brian Topp

Let's start my series of NDP leadership candidate profiles with the first to enter the race, and one who's probably inspired more discussion than any other so far: longtime organizer and strategist Brian Topp.


Topp's combination of organizational acumen and institutional support has been one of the defining features of the leadership campaign to date: he made himself into a perceived front-runner seemingly out of thin air with a series of early endorsements, and has never stopped earning at least a share of top billing as the campaign has progressed. And all indications are that in addition to having at least a communications-friendly organization, Topp can also hold his own in debating policy.

But Topp's campaign enjoys another potential strength - based partly on smart planning, partly on circumstance - that doesn't seem to have received much attention yet.

As much as Topp's strategy has been based on trying to race immediately to the front of the pack, he's also theoretically positioned better than most to pick up support in the more likely final-ballot matchups. And the main reason is that he figures to be next in line to pick up votes based on most of the other top candidates' strengths.

In a final ballot against Thomas Mulcair, Topp's comparatively left-wing economic stance and his support in the NDP's base would seemingly give him the upper hand in winning over the supporters of Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar and Niki Ashton - whose votes would likely be crucial in a close race. Or conversely, in a two-way contest against one of the stronger non-Quebec contenders Topp would hold an advantage in being able to present himself to supporters of Mulcair and Romeo Saganash as the remaining Quebec native son, while also tacking closer to Mulcair's philosophical leanings than the alternative.


But those scenarios only come into play if Topp actually makes the final ballot. And that's where things start to get a bit dicey for his campaign.

It's far from clear that Topp's strength among the NDP's institutional leaders extends down to its general membership. And the combination of a controversial early launch, the extra attention that comes from media front-runner status and a relatively chippy campaign has resulted in plenty of voting members being wary of Topp.

Key Indicator

With that in mind, the test of Topp's campaign figures to be his general favourability rating by the time of the March vote.

Topp has already made sure that members will know his name and at least some of his policy positions. But if he can't use the months between now and March to build up what Warren Kinsella describes as the "Hell of a Guy" factor in addition to that strategic base - both to earn enough first-ballot support to stick around until the end, and to keep positive enough impressions among other candidates' supporters to pick up momentum on voting day - then all of Topp's planning will be for naught.

Key Competitor

Lest there be any doubt, it wasn't a coincidence that Topp's more testy exchanges on Sunday were those with Paul Dewar. Dewar has started the campaign as the most likely magnet for the down-ballot support Topp will likely need to stay in the race - and if (as seems entirely possible) the final four candidates in the contest are Mulcair, Nash, Topp and Dewar, then the most difficult hurdle for Topp to overcome may be trying to push Dewar to the bottom of that list to free up all of the down-ballot candidates' supporters.

Plausible Outcomes

Best-case: First-ballot win based on strong organization
Worst-case: Middle-of-the-pack finish based on limited personal reach

Monday, December 05, 2011

Monday Evening Links

Assorted content to end your day.

- Toby Sanger posts about the OECD's findings on inequality in Canada, with this particularly jumping out as to how much less progressive our tax system is now than it was two decades ago:
Taxes and benefits play a smaller role in reducing inequality in Canada than in most OECD countries: prior to the mid-1990s, they offset more than 70% of the rise in market income inequality, now it’s less than 40%(.)
- Leftwords points out that UK hospitals which were built as P3s as a matter of government decree are now demanding - and receiving - a higher cost for services as a result of that ill-advised choice. And Tim Harford highlights the absurdity of the free-marketeers' argument that public-sector pay should be seen as nothing but a cost to society while private-sector pay is seen as the be-all and end-all of policy development.

- Erika Shaker takes Margaret Wente more seriously than Wente deserves, but makes up for it with a thorough skewering of her condescension toward the Occupy movement.

- Finally, Mia Rabson points out that the Cons can't be taken seriously in feigning concern with bullying in Canada at large when it forms the centrepiece of their political strategy.

On pertinent questions

I'll add one additional follow-up note from yesterday's NDP leadership debate. In principle the opportunity for candidates to ask questions of one another looks to have been an ideal chance to test one of the major roles of an opposition leader. And while most of the contenders decided to lob softballs for the first debate, I have to wonder whether some of them (particularly those looking to pitch a fundamental change to politics generally) might want to shift tactics in future debates.

After all, the normal opportunity for an opposition leader to influence the public debate by asking questions comes in the House of Commons' question period - which by all accounts has degenerated into farce, with at least some of the issue seen to come from opposition benches (even if the utter lack of anything approaching answers obviously serves as the bulk of the problem).

That doesn't figure to change in question period anytime soon. But what if some of the NDP's leadership candidates started using their debate questions to establish a precedent as to what question period queries should look like? Those wouldn't necessarily need to be adversarial so much as thoughtful and philosophical - encouraging a substantive response rather than a talking point from the candidate on the receiving end, and allowing the questioner to go further down that road in the follow-up within the debate.

At the very least, that strategy would set a higher tone for the NDP's own debates. And if enough of the media covering the NDP's race begins to ask why we shouldn't expect the same out of our democratic institutions, then it could well be an important step toward rendering obsolete the Harper brand of politics.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Murray Dobbin comments on how the NDP can turn economic issues from a perceived weakness to one of the party's core strengths over the next election cycle:
There is a long way to go for the NDP to establish itself as a serious contender for the 'good economic manager' title. One debate won't do it. But if the other candidates take up the gauntlet thrown down by Nash, it could go a long way to breaking the 40-year taboo. The final outcome for an NDP economic policy needs to include, in addition to Nash’s points, a commitment to strengthen the domestic economy by ending the 25-year suppression of wages, a clear and detailed tax reform policy (Brian Topp's strength at the moment) to increase government revenues; vigorous enforcement of labour standards to protect workers from ruthless employers; a national energy policy that places limits on tar sands expansion and puts current oil industry subsidies to work rapidly developing alternative energy sources, and lastly an acknowledgement that unfettered consumerism is an unsustainable economic policy. That means a shift away from private goods to public goods. Economic policy is seen as dull stuff, but there is no reason it can't be visionary.
- And after doing his best to drive away readers with tedious pro-market spin, Miles Corak offers up a tax proposal which could well serve as the base for the NDP's economic policy.

- Meanwhile, the Cons' "economic manager" brand looks rather vulnerable when even the party's backbenchers can't help but to admit that their leadership is preventing MPs from doing their job of managing the public purse. And that utter refusal to listen to anybody other than PMO communications flacks and the occasional oil lobbyist in setting Canada's economic direction looks to make for one of the Cons' major economic vulnerabilities.

- Finally, Nathan Cullen makes his case for pre-election cooperation between the opposition parties.

Leadership 2012 - Debate 1 Wrapup

Plenty of others have already commented on the NDP's first leadership debate. But I haven't yet seen any that line up with my take on yesterday's chance for candidates to introduce themselves to the country.

To start with, the perceived top-tier candidates generally lived up to their billing. Thomas Mulcair effectively managed both the subject matter and the setting throughout; Brian Topp held serve on the former point and showed some promise that he'll grow into the role of reaching out to the public; and Peggy Nash put to rest any doubts that she can rouse a crowd in English, while leaving a few open questions about her ability to do so in French.

But there was one exception.

I've been careful to avoid docking candidates too many points for having some room to improve in a second language. But in order to win the benefit of the doubt, a candidate does need to sound compelling in his or her more familiar language. And on that point, Paul Dewar suffered in comparison to Nathan Cullen - who seemed more comfortable than any contender other than Mulcair, sounding more confident even in his entirely improvised lines than Dewar did in presenting his own policies.

That made Cullen the candidate who gained the most from yesterday's debate - even if it's an open question whether any amount of personal appeal can overcome his strategic choice to make cooperation with the Liberals the centrepiece of his campaign. But Cullen's ease in front of an audience may end up serving as the dividing line between the NDP's serious contenders and its also-rans - and yesterday, Dewar fell short of the standard.

The other candidate who saw a substantial drop in his standing yesterday was of course Robert Chisholm. In part, that was the result of the same issue as for Dewar: in order to win the benefit of the doubt on a lack of French he needed to outclass his competitors in English, and Chisholm wasn't able to do that. But more importantly, Chisholm provided the few painful moments of what was otherwise a highly professional debate with his attempts to speak French. And nothing can undermine a candidacy based on political smarts and experience faster than getting laughed at on national television for an ill-advised attempt to sound out words in an unfamiliar language.

Meanwhile, the other contenders at least held their own, and may have done more than that. Niki Ashton was effective in both languages, though she'll need to be somewhat more judicious in her use of the "new politics" theme as the debates go on. Romeo Saganash mirrored Nash's pluses and minuses, sounding awkward in English but looking like a top-tier contender in French. And Martin Singh avoided any rookie mistakes in sticking to his preferred themes - making for an introduction that gives him a chance to build up to the later debates.

All in all, yesterday doesn't figure to have been decisive for any candidate's chances in the months to come. But it certainly figures to focus attention on the areas candidates will need to develop as the campaign progresses.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

On positive outcomes

Following up on this morning's candidate rankings, I'll add one more general post in advance of this afternoon's NDP leadership debate.

While plenty of media commentary seems to be asking questions about whether anybody can land a knockout punch, let's note that a party leadership debate - and particularly one early in the leadership campaign - involves radically different incentives than the election debates where such terminology makes somewhat more sense.

First, the leadership debate isn't a zero-sum game where any candidate has much reason to focus on "knocking out" competitors. Instead, with the membership deadline several months away there's ample time to build on the organizational structure each candidate currently holds - which means that the goal for each candidate should largely be to build name recognition and positive impressions for the campaign to come. (This factor might arguably as the candidates' relative positioning becomes more clear - but for now it's a fool's errand to try to guess as to how the rest of the campaign might play out so as to justify negative contrasting now.)

Which leads to the second point: (arguably) unlike the dynamic in a general election campaign, there's ample reason for every candidate to want to stay on good terms with opponents and their supporters. In part that's based on the leadership campaign itself: since any candidate will almost surely need second-choice votes to emerge victorious, any candidate's attacks on another candidate which causes a camp to close ranks against the attacker will likely serve to narrow the prospects of winning in the end. But it's also based on the fact that the candidates will need to be able to work together within the same party and caucus for years to come - giving each a strong reason to maintain a respectful tone rather than building entrenched rivalries that will reduce the electoral prospects for whoever ultimately wins the leadership, as well as the party as a whole.

Of course, our most recent example of a federal leadership race (the 2006 Libs' contest) didn't fit the above pattern. But surely the end result of that campaign isn't one to be emulated. And so the NDP's leadership contenders would do well to focus on the positive.

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- If anybody hasn't yet seen Bruce Anderson's critique of the Cons' dirty tricks, it's well worth a read - especially in emphasizing how a party supposedly built around morals and ethics is so quick to declare that anything goes when it comes to political manipulations:
Eventually, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan admitted that this was being done on an organized basis by the Conservatives. A sad, cynical enough moment in Canadian politics. Then he took cynicism to a new, jaw dropping level.

No mumbling the normal apologies about “overzealous workers, blah, blah, blah, won’t happen again, etc.” Instead, Canadians were told that this kind of grime should be considered vital free speech – and must be protected, not prevented, by our laws. Efforts to rein it in would have worse consequences than letting it continue. This was the sound of a politician who had left home without an ethical or moral compass that morning.
This truly isn’t complicated. If our children tell lies about schoolmates, we punish them not shrug it off. When it happens on the Internet, we call it cyber bullying and bemoan how young people seem to have grown up without decent values. Conservative Christian groups presumably recognize this as something hard to square with the “Golden Rule.”

How exactly does this kind of behaviour, and its subsequent defence, fit within a party that wants to be known as the champion of law and order? I’m not suggesting the acts were illegal, only that it seemed the point of a law-and-order agenda was proclaiming a larger idea along the lines of “We conservatives get right and wrong.”

And this is wrong. Not clever, not amusing, not evidence of a more sophisticated political machine that works all the angles while others are asleep at the switch. Just wrong on every level.
- Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt puts Anderson's comments in context alongside some of the Cons' other defences of shady tactics. And the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal weighs in on Peter MacKay's sense of entitlement and strategy of deception.

- Sixth Estate unveils the Weekly Flack Award for outstanding achievement in the field of Con PR hackery. But is one award a week really enough to cover the sheer volume of substance-free self-congratulation being generated by thousands of politically-oriented communications staff?

- Finally, Brett Hodnett reproduces Chelsea Vowel's breakdown of the Cons' spin about funding to Attawapiskat, showing that there's been nowhere near enough funding to put even a small dent in the cost of providing housing. And Romeo Saganash comments on the federal government's deliberate choices to assimilate First Nations rather than allowing them to function as communities.

[Update: Fixed attribution to Chelsea Vowel as per comments.]

Leadership 2012 Candidate Rankings - December 4, 2011

Not a lot has changed since last week's rankings. But with the first NDP leadership debate looming this afternoon, let's quickly take stock of where the candidates stand - including with a quick take on what they'll each need to accomplish this afternoon.

1. Thomas Mulcair (1)

There isn't much doubt about Mulcair's command of the issues, and the economy should be a particularly strong suit given his extensive work as a national spokesperson and liaison for the NDP. So Mulcair's main goal for today figures to be to stay above the fray: he'll surely be in the sights of a few of the other candidates, and will need to avoid negative impressions among the other candidates and their supporters which might limit his later-ballot support.

2. Peggy Nash (2)

Nash too has plenty of experience speaking out on economic issues. But she may have somewhat more at stake than Mulcair since her personal brand is so closely linked to left-wing economic populism - meaning that if she can't inspire the base with both content and style, the rest of the campaign may get much tougher for her.

3. Brian Topp

Topp makes a slight move up in the rankings thanks to the release of his tax plan, which served as a reminder that his air campaign is as well planned out as anybody's. But today may be the most important test as to whether Topp can live up to the hype surrounding his endorsements and media profile.

4. Paul Dewar (3)

Dewar drops one position for now through no fault of his own. But today may be telling as to Dewar's ability to connect with voters in French, with a secure place in the upper tier of the campaign at stake.

5. Romeo Saganash (5)

None of the leadership contenders figures to rely more on a possible snowball effect to push them to the front of the pack than Saganash. And today provides the best chance to get the ball rolling if Saganash can win over unaligned members to join his camp.

6. Niki Ashton (6)

While most of the other candidates will be working on standing out in the debate, Ashton's goal may be slightly less lofty: she can dispel concerns about her age and experience if she can hold her own in sparring with her fellow candidates on economic values and policies.

7. Nathan Cullen (8)

Cullen actually rises one position thanks to the lack of discussion of his signature policy: while any talk about pre-electoral cooperation with the Liberals figures to turn off a substantial part of the NDP's base, the rest of Cullen's candidacy looks significantly more appealing. But obviously Cullen can't afford to keep up that pattern if he hopes to rise in the field - which means that the goal for today has to be to reach outside the party to start bringing in the external support he'll need to stay on the ballot.

8. Robert Chisholm (7)

Since Chisholm's appeal is based in large part on his experience as Nova Scotia's opposition leader, he doesn't figure to benefit much from a policy area of strength. Instead, he needs to express himself in French at least enough to create some hope that he'll be able to communicate in both of Canada's official languages by the end of the leadership campaign.

[Update: I see from the CP's report that Chisholm plans to rely on simultaneous translation. Which may kick the can down the road for later in the campaign compared to trying and failing to debate in French now - but means that he'll make no headway at all on the biggest question about his candidacy.]

9. Martin Singh (9)

Singh stays at the bottom of the list for now. But the first debate offers him an ideal chance to introduce himself to the country at large - and since Singh has avoided the pitfalls of the candidates ahead of him, he might well rise by next week if he's well-received.