Category Archives: liberal party of canada

Negotiating in Coalitions: some thoughts

A few people have asked me about the how to handle negotiations in coalition like the one proposed by the Liberals, NDP and Bloc. Here are a couple of thoughts.

First, coalitions like these are very different then alliances and partnerships in the private sector. This is, most importantly, because corporate alliances and partnerships are very rarely zero-sum games. Usually, the total amount of money to be made is not fixed. So if every one cooperates, everyone stands to make more money. This is a strong positive incentive. (It also creates incentives for free rider, but this is another issue)

While political alliances are not entirely zero-sum, they are much more so. The benefits to be accrued for the country by cooperating are potentially unlimited, but the benefits to who ends up being credited with creating these benefits is are not. Specifically, there are a fixed number of seats in the house and so, benefits to one party necessarily come at the expense of one of the other parties. Were the downside only to be experienced by the Conservatives, this wouldn’t be a problem – potentially all coalition members could increase the number of seats – however, there is real risk for all coalition members that they will lose seats to another coalition member. Should one party be seen as making particularly strong gains, the coalitions will likely become fragile or will fall apart all together. This means – paradoxically – that success can be as much a threat to the coalition as failure. One question I might have is: have the parties talked about how they will manage success?

The second challenge has to do with unknowns. On the one hand the Liberals, NDP and Bloc have been wise to craft a deal that is narrow in scope (my understanding is that it focuses largely on creating an economic stimulus). However, the challenge for any alliance or partnership is not dealing with knowns, but dealing with the unknowns. Further economic turmoil, a terrorist attack, an international crisis, all of these events demand – a sometimes very quick – response from the government. And these are extreme examples, bad press on a failed program can, on its own, generate a political crisis. A coalition posses real challenges to the capacity of the government to react, especially if there is disagreement among coalition members. Have the parties talked about what their deal breakers are? About a process for responding to crises?

Finally, there is the simple capacity of managing a coalition government. It is one thing for a leadership cadre to negotiate an overall agreement for how to work together in the face of a common threat. It is something else for the working members of groups to cooperate and negotiate on a day to day basis. The leaders may have forged a common bond and understanding, but it probably does not trickle very far down into an organization – particularly partisan organizations which are used to working against one another. While one small challenge or disagreement is unlikely to derail the coalition, a series of them can be devastating. Is there a process and guidelines for how MPs might handle disagreements and does the leadership have a plan for how to deal with them? This challenge may seem simple today, but as the immediate threat of the conservatives disappears it becomes increasingly problematic.

I remain skeptical that a coalition government this diverse can function for any period of time (especially if the press starts assigning “winners” and “losers” early on, or if polling data shows the public breaking towards one party. That said, it is possible for such a coalition to function, but it will take incredible negotiation skills and discipline, particularly among the parties leadership (including political staff) but also among its rank and file.

Also a postscript, I’m a big beleiver that sometimes as Eisenhower out it”If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” The biggest problem for this coalition is that it could defined by being anti-Conservative as opposed to “the coalition to rescue Canada’s economy.” This is why, although it would create some more challenges, it might also cause everyone to reframe what the coalition is about if they followed Kinsella’s advice and brought some conservatives into the fold.

Real Renewal – Creating a post-boomer Liberal Party

Taylor Owen and I published an op-ed entitled “Real Renewal” in today’s Toronto Star. You can comment on the piece here.

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OPINION

How about real Liberal renewal?

Nov 20, 2008 04:30 AM

David Eaves
Taylor Owen

In the weeks since one of its worst ever electoral performances, the conversation within the Liberal Party of Canada has rightly turned to renewal. To date, the establishment consensus suggests two options: shift right and recapture the ideological “centre,” or unite the left and merge the votes of the Greens, NDP and Liberals.

Neither choice, however, represents renewal. Both are simply electoral tactics focused on the next election. Neither necessitates a rethinking of first principles, nor encourages reflection on how liberalism, and its agenda, must evolve to create a 21st century vision that will speak to Canadians.

Consequentially, both approaches are likely to alienate a new generation of activists, thinkers and policy-makers whose new ideas and energy are essential to transcending the country’s staid political debates.

Take for example our friends and colleagues. Confronted with parties whose politics, policies and priorities are perceived as out of touch and ineffective, many have simply opted out of organized politics. But many are deeply engaged. They start or work at non-governmental organizations, volunteer internationally, create social enterprises or advocate outside of organized politics. Among our peers, the progressive spirit is strong, but progressive politics is not.

To progressives searching for a political home a united left offers few new opportunities.

While acknowledging the left was instrumental in creating many of the social programs Canadians have come to trust – many of today’s emerging progressives see a left that is often loath to reform or rethink them in the face of globalization, the telecommunication revolution, and a changing citizenry. In the last election voters faced an ideological paradox. The more left the advocates, the more entrenched they were against innovation and reform, even when such reforms would serve progressive values.

Seen this way, the NDP’s vision is in many ways a conservative one – a vision of Canada locked in the 1960s or worse, the 1930s. This conservatism of the left – even if found under one tent – will not inspire forward looking progressives, or Canadians in general.

Nor will moving to the centre attract new people or inspire new ideas.

Centrism requires there to something inherently good in the position between two ideological poles. Rather than compromise between the conservatism of the left and the right, many of our peers want pragmatic policies and ideas based on a governing philosophy rather than political gamesmanship.

Take how Barack Obama has mobilized a new generation of progressives. He inspires not because he compromises between the left and right, but because he offers pragmatic policy solutions, unrestricted by ideology. Obama’s watershed speeches – “Ebenezer Baptist Church,” “Yes We Can” and “A More Perfect Union” – are powerful because they transcend the ideological divides of the past 40 years.

How then could the Liberal party attract new people and ideas? The first step is to understand that we are on the cusp of a neo-progressive revolution.

While traditional progressives promoted their values to smooth the transition from agrarian to industrial capitalism and to spread the latter’s benefits, a neo-progressive Liberal party should seek to manage the shift from the industrial to the knowledge economy. In short, to develop a New Deal for the 21st century.

This would mean, like their progressive forbearers identifying new political axes around which a new governing coalition – drawn from both the left and right – could be built.

These emerging political axes include open versus closed systems, evidence-based policy versus ideology, meritocratic governance versus patronage, open and fair markets versus isolationism, and emergent networks versus hierarchies. It is these political distinctions, not the old left versus right, that increasingly resonate among those we talk to.

Such a shift will not be easy for the Liberal party. Transformative politics requires a painful process of introspection and a willingness to let go of past battles. The Liberal party, however, continues to treat “renewal” as a side process. For example, after Paul Martin’s 2006 defeat party insiders chose 30 issues they felt were critical, and then a select group wrote reports on each. Little technology was used, neither the membership nor the public was engaged, and almost none of the reports were released to the public.

The result: Few new people were attracted to the party, almost no rigorous debates were stimulated and Liberals were unable to articulate a new progressive agenda.

This recent history offers one critical lesson. If Liberals are serious about renewal, the process can’t just be about the tactics for winning the next election, but about making progressive politics relevant to the 21st century.

David Eaves is a fellow at the Queen’s University’s Centre of the Study of Democracy. Taylor Owen is a Trudeau Scholar at the University of Oxford.

Liberal Renewal: Indentify good questions, not answers

The following was a memo I wrote for some friends back in May, 2006 as the Liberal Renewal Commission was just getting going. I was sensing that we needed a process that was emergent – one that leveraged its reputation (and meager resources) not to do something top down, but facilitate something bottom-up.

Recently a friend asked me to dig it up. After a little touch up, I thought I’d post it, as I believe much of it is as true to today as it was two years ago.

Memo: How Can the Liberal Party Renewal Committee maximize its impact?

Most Liberals agree the party needs to re-examine its policies, priorities and ideology to ascertain what, if anything, must change to enable the it to regain office.

The process and output of the Renewal Committee will determine its reception both among party members and the leadership candidates. This one pager assessment will argue that, to maximize its impact the committee should help define the debate liberals – through their leadership candidates – must have, not resolve it.

A robust output that outlines a new liberal party platform will likely have little impact. First, leadership candidates will be disinclined to use it. Adopting the committee’s recommendations could either damage the candidates credibility as an innovative thinker (they are ‘borrowing’ someone else’s work) or, more likely, candidates will ignore the recommendations as they won’t allow them to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Second, for a liberal party platform to be credible it must, in some capacity, emerge and/or receive buy-in from the grassroots of the party. This isn’t a plea for wide spread consultations. However, the opposite, hand picking a group of ‘best and brightest’ risks alienating members not included in the process and undermines the democratic ideals that should be core to the party’s DNA. Sitting on the civic engagement committee, I am forced to wonder how does this process measure up against the standards of engagement our policy recommendations will suggest for government programs?

How then can the Renewal Committee have impact, in the midst of a leadership race and without conducting broad, time consuming and questionably helpful consultations?

The liberal party does not need answers. The key to solving any problem, including the renewal of the Liberal Party and the creation of a platform, it is in ascertaining the right questions. The Renewal Committee should thus do two things: 1) Determine what, for each sub-committee topic, are the three emerging questions ANY political party must possess answers for to be the dominant Canadian political force in the 21st century. 2) Provide some criteria for an effective answers and some initial insights. Committee members could then publicly sign a letter committing themselves to pressing the leadership candidates for answers to each of the questions – a test to their capacity for leadership of the party and country for not just the next election, but for the 21st century.

This approach will maximize the impact of the committee by enabling it to provoke a real debate within the leadership race and, ultimately, among party members. If the commission simply provides answers it will  alienate the leadership candidates and the party at large. By asking questions it can attempt to position itself as a force for thinking about and opening up, the debate over liberalism and ideas. Moreover, by asking questions it enables all members to participate in this process – by proposing answers – and can ensure that the issues the committee believes to be essential to renewal are placed front and centre.

The most important election lesson – networks

So much has happened and, so little has changed. As Kinsella put it best before heading to the night, no one is happy. For me, I’m most saddened to see my friend Omar Alghabra lose, he’s smart, friendly, a great representative and an asset to Canadians – whether they voted for him or not. His loss is a loss for all of us.

So what lessons should the parties draw from last night – and in particularly the election’s biggest losers, the liberals?

Probably the most important lessons is both the strengths and limits of network effects in politics.

The Conservatives is by far one of the most networked parties for Canada’s political environment. Why is this? Because of their roots as the Reform party. Because they started from nothing – and were even feared by larger corporate funders who saw them as too radical – they developed and have come to rely on fund raising through individuals. This has two consequences. First, to fund raise successfully in this manner they must be keenly aware of what their network of individual donors think, so they are constantly in tune with their supporters listening to them and engaging them. Second, by relying on a network of grassroots contributors they have never relied on large corporate donors. Thus, when Chretien passed campaign finance reform and essentially eliminated institutional donations (from unions and corporations) he created an election fund raising ecosystem in which the conservative model was well positioned to thrive.

However, while their network enables Conservatives to raise money, it creates limits. Specifically, because the Conservatives are financially dependent on their core supporters they are constrained by how much they can moderate their message to expand their political support. The broader their appeal the harder it is to raise money from their base.

This is the Conservative dilemma. (It is also one shared by the Greens and the Bloc.)

In contrast the Liberals have almost the opposite problem. Over the past few decades liberals have become addicted to the easy money of a few wealthy individuals and large corporations. Rather then decentralized and networked, fund raising has been highly centralized – almost divorced from individuals. Unfortunately, the party has been slow to adapt since Chretien shut off this intravenous drip. Specifically, two interrelated  problems plague the party. 1) It is still wrestling to figuring out what infrastructure is needed to fund raise in this new individual donor-centric environment, and more problematically 2) to grasp that rethinking infrastructure alone is insufficient. Individual-centric fund raising will rethinking both the structure of the party and its relationship with individual members. Until the implications of individual-centric fund raising have been understood, fund raising – and thus effective campaigns – will remain a difficult endeavor.

But probably the party facing the biggest challenge – long term – is the NDP, the one party that can ignore networks and continue to survive. This is largely because the unions – which can no longer donate as much money as they once could – can still deliver boots on the ground to help out. In short the NDP is one party that need not cultivate a network in order to survive. This dependency means it will likely not put in place the infrastructure to enable organic growth. Consequently, growth will require an exogenous event, namely a Liberal collapse – something that while theoretically possible – is hard to imagine. As such, the NDP will continue to sit influence the debate indirectly, a role that satisfies some of its members while infuriating others.

Pollster Deathmatch: Who's winning the election?

Anyone notice this? We seem to not only have a battle of political parties, but also a battle of pollsters.

According to Harris/Decima press release of September 21st the Conservatives lead is growing:

Conservatives:39%,
Liberals: 23%
NDP: 17%
Green Party: 11%
BQ: 8%.

However, a press release on the very same day by our friend Nik Nanos (who it is worth remembering predicted the last election within .2%) had the Conservatives lead shrinking:

Conservatives:36%,
Liberals: 31%
NDP: 20%
Green Party 7%
BQ 7%.

Personally, my money is on Nik, but something is going on here. These two polls are in disagreement well outside the margin of error. Liberal support is either at 23% or 31%? A lead of 5% versus 16%? These are huge differences…

When this election is over someone is going to really have egg on their face.

Hargrove vs. Layton

According to National Newswatch Buzz Hargrove is ruminating running as a Liberal against Jack Layton.

It is no secret that Hargrove and Layton dislike each other. Indeed, the NDP even revoked Hargrove’s membership during the last electoin after he suggested NDP voters vote strategically (e.g. for Liberals) in some ridings to prevent the Conservatives from gaining power.

The bigger question is why the Liberals would want to be the vehicle for this feud. Taking out Layton will not end the NDP. Indeed, it’s unclear why the Liberals would want to take out Layton at all. He’s has been pretty good for the Liberals… the NDP remains more or less stuck in the polls. Why would the Liberals mess with a good thing?

The downside however, is not insignificant. Taking a run at Layton could galvanize NDP voters as well as give him greater prominance in the election. Layton usually has to fight for media attention. By offering up a high profile challenger the Liberals will draw attention to him that he could never earn on his own. Worse still, a high profile match up would enable Layton to claim the Liberals perceive him as a threat – lending him an air of credibility and respect that again, he has been unable to earn on his own.

All in all, it’s obvious what Hargrove gets out of it, the Liberals… less so.

But then, this is all rumour and speculation…

I'm betting on a fall election

The current mania around a spring election has started to fade, especially with Dion beginning to say the Liberals might not bring down the government over the budget.

There are good strategic reasons for this.

If, as it would appear. the economy is beginning to worsen, then the Liberals have every reason to delay. Governing parties tend to do worse when the economy is poor, so if things are getting worse, better to wait and trigger an election later when the pain of a shrinking economy is more apparent.

This alone, would be a good reason to wait. But there is another related reason to wait for the fall, and it has to do with the American election.

South of the border the Democrats will also be pounding away on the fact that the economy has run aground – in their case, they’ll blame George Bush and the Republican Party. The Liberals will stand to benefit from this in two important ways. First, the general theme of “a bad economy” will be everywhere in the press – as both the Canadian and American media will be talking about it. Canadians will simply not be able to escape the issue and the framing.

But better still, the simple fact that there is a US election means that a significant amount of media “oxygen” will be sucked up by this giant event south of the border. Like it or not, Canadians get a chunk of their media from the United States. This will make it harder for the Conservatives to implement a communication strategy to combat the issue of the poor economy – particularly as the Democratic Party is working extra time to get it in the media. In a real sense the liberals will working with the wind at their backs – benefiting from the messaging out of the US – while knowing that it will be harder for the Conservatives to create a counter-narrative.

Why we are having the wrong debate on Afghanistan

Why is it that we continue to see the Afghanistan mission through the lens of peacekeeping, as opposed to peacebuilding? This fact seems to underlie and shape the entire debate – forcing us to ask the wrong questions and driving all our political parties to poorly thought out solutions.

Take, for example, the new Liberal position that insists on a non-combat role. As Rosie Dimanno points out in a recent Toronto Star article the number of Canadian troops killed in combat in Afghanistan last year was 0. 12 were killed by improvised explosive and 11 by roadside bombs and land mines. In addition there have been deaths from accidents. But there has not been a single combat death since Sept 3. 2006. One is forced to ask… why insist on a non-combat role? It is because this is what we’d like the mission to entail? Or because this is what the mission does entail. Although we may wish it, we are not peacekeeping. Our troops are not positioning themselves between enemy combatants in an effort to prevent them from fighting. This is peacebuilding – we are one of the combatants and we should not pretend otherwise.

The risks of pretending we are peacekeeping however, are significant. As she points out:

If Liberals are trying to spare Canadian lives – by venturing passively, ducking into calmer territory and promoting reconstruction in the absence of a secure environment – an anti-combat insistence is utterly without merit.

But it might get Canadian troops killed. An enemy that knows troops won’t fight back, can’t fight back because of political handcuffs slapped on half a world away, is an enemy given a blood-embossed invitation to attack at will.

Her article may be alarmist, but its central argument is correct. As General Lewis Mackenzie confirms, denying our troops the capacity to take advanced actions to protect themselves – or the NGO’s and aid workers attempting to rebuild Afghanistan – is sheer folly. Our polticians owe it to both the public and our military to be honest about what this mission requires of us.

Which brings us to a second distortion. In a peacekeeping mission one would want to know other countries are participating. A broader coalition means more countries are fostering international pressure to end the conflict and bring their peacekeepers home. Again, however, we are not in a peacekeeping mission. Either we believe an unstable Afghanistan is a threat to our national interest or we don’t. If it is a threat, why does it matter what our NATO allies think? Did we, prior to the second world war, wait to see who else signed up before committing to action? Of course not. The cause was important enough for us to commit ourselves. Nor, after 1943, did we say “we’ve done our part, time for someone else to step up.”And yet this is precisely how we are presently framing the issue.

As a result our national debate over Afghanistan actually undermines our efforts to solicit support. Our politicians end up treating Afghanistan as a duty – something, like peacekeeping, we do to maintain for humanitarian reasons, or to buttress our reputation within NATO or the United States. Not once in the last few months has Afghanistan been described as an imperative. But few, if any countries, are willing to put their soldiers in harms way out of a vague sense of obligation to an international body. Countries – and Canada should be among this list – should put their soldiers in harms way with enourmous trepidation, and usually only when they believe vital national interests are at stake. By telling our allies “it’s someone else’s turn” we risk conveying that we really don’t believe this mission is vital. If it were, we’d be asking them to work along side us, not replace us.

At present, it appears the majority of our allies don’t believe a stable Afghanistan is essential to global peace and security. This is either because it isn’t, or because we’ve failed to convince them. This is a difficult assessment to make and I’d be foolish to claim that I know the answer with complete certainty. That said, I suspect – as Paul Wells points out – our diplomat efforts to make the case have been weak at best.

Canada must decide for itself if we think a stable Afghanistan is critical to the stability of the international system and thus, in turn, our national interest. Sadly, I’ve heard little of this in the discussion among the political parties. And yet addressing this underlying question would not only be the more honest approach, it might cause the “are we in” or “are we out” debate to simply disappear.

Flying Porter

I was lucky enough to fly Porter Airlines today out of Toronto yesterday.

With yesterday morning’s snowstorm wrecking havoc everybody was struggling to get planes into Ottawa and Montreal – Porter however was running a mere 30 minutes behind schedule. A fact that shared and updated on their website. This allowed me to delay leaving for the airport.

Moreover, the convenience of flying out of downtown Toronto is out of control. Rather than be stuck in traffic on a Thursday afternoon I chilled out with friends until the last moment. Better yet, Gavin informed me of the free shuttle Porter runs between Union Station and the island ferry.

This is the first step in my break up with Air Canada – with whom I’ve had a long running love/hate relationship (in short, I hate everything except the lounge and the airmiles). Air Canada recently sent me another two useless “upgrade certificates” that, as I’ve discussed, are neither a reward nor an incentive, and so only serve to make me loath them further. Since I can’t make Super Elite on Air Canada, and I’ve got plenty of miles, I’m going to give my money to as many other airlines as possible. If competition can breed more airlines like Porter – then all the more reason.

As an aside, it would appear I’m not the only one smitten with Porter. Upon getting off the plane in Ottawa, Stephan Dion, Ralph Goodale, Ken Dryden and possible a few other Liberals were getting ready to board. I know several firms that – to manage risk – cap the number of partners/executives/specialists/etc… that can be on any one flight. Interesting to note that this is not the case with the Liberal Party of Canada. One hopes that, at least, the Leader and the Deputy Leader are not allowed to share a plane.