The Leadership Lesson of Eglinton-Lawrence

It isn’t often that a political party’s grassroots manage to save its leadership from the consequences of its own actions. Such, however, is the case of the riding of Eglinton-Lawrence and the local Liberal riding association’s rejection of Justin Trudeau’s preferred candidate, the erstwhile Tory Eve Adams.

Of course, there’ll be the usual punditing and partisan patter about Trudeau’s leadership suffering a blow, but I’d argue the opposite — because, if you examine the issue quite closely, the actual process of candidate selection has nothing whatsoever to do with political leadership.

Justin wanted candidate X on his team, and said so. Is that leadership? Or is it, rather, like a carpenter selecting a tool from Home Depot for a particular job? I would argue that it’s the latter — because actually selecting a candidate isn’t the job of the party leader, it’s the job of the riding association. And while the leader may express a preference, that has no real force in the political party structure.

Party leadership isn’t really tested when a leader takes charge of a group of people he’s chosen, on his own, for his own purposes. It is, however, tested when he’s presented with a slate of people he’s never worked with before and given the task of turning them into an effective legislative force, whether in government or opposition. These people may not be who he wanted, but they’re who he’s got, and it’s up to him to pull out the best they can give to the political process they’ve joined.

The well-known Liberal Scott Reid has argued that Ms. Adams’ rejection would be seen as rebuff to Justin, and partisans would agree. But he also argues that

… Occasionally voting for something or someone you dislike because the leader wants it comes with the territory. Such discipline is vital in politics. It enables the reliable functioning of our big-tent, brokerage party system. And that system has served Canada well by forging stability in spite of pronounced regional, linguistic and cultural tensions.

Actually, this is the sentiment that Mr. Trudeau was elected to question — he’s on record as saying he wanted to reform the way the Liberal Party did politics, if you’ll recall. It’s why he fired senators from his caucus; it’s why he made that oh-that-we-could-really-really-do-it promise to make candidate nominations “open.” The rejection of Ms. Adams should be (and, if the Liberals are smart, will be) portrayed as the party grassroots holding Justin to that promise.

Posted in Justin Time, Ontario, The Third Party | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

No Government Department Will Ever “Get” Facebook

Here’s a question for those of you who use Facebook: do you ever use it to look for government departments?

I see a few hands up out there, and to them I say: okay, now put your hand down if you actually work for a government department. Be honest now.

Uh-huh — I thought as much.

Which is why this Ottawa Citizen story about Environment Canada’s Facebook page doesn’t surprise me.

According to Environment Canada, the change is a result of the government’s web renewal initiative to consolidate 1,500 government departments onto the canada.ca website by the end of next year.

“Environment Canada is a theme-led department, responsible for the Environment and Natural Resources theme on canada.ca. The changes to Facebook are reflective of a theme approach rather than a departmental approach,” wrote Environment Canada spokeswoman Jirina Vlk in an email.

Environment Canada will continue posting content on the newly named Facebook page but will be “working more closely” with 17 other “environment and natural resources theme” partners to include their content, according to Vlk. Those departments include the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Public Works and Government Services Canada.

And yes, quite a few people say it’s going to be a disaster.

“There’s natural change and there is good change and then there is crazy change,” said [digital public affairs strategist Mark] Blevis. “It’s confusing. It’s trying to turn a government department into an action-based community. I think it is trying to be the hip social media destination that other social media destinations are that government usually is not.”

When the administrator of the Conserve, Restore, and Connect with Nature group asked visitors what they thought of the new name, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

“Please change back to Environment Canada. This new name is a real mouthful, and needs to be disposed of,” posted Matt Williams.

“I absolutely don’t like the new name. What was wrong with the actual name of the department, and presenting actual information about and by the department? People want information on policy, not just weather and pretty pictures. Please rethink this ‘theme account’ idea,” added Gabriela Rappell.

I think you understand the problem here. Government consists of public servants, and public servants by definition cannot be “cool,” which is what Facebook is (or was, depending on your generation). It’s sort of like watching Peter Mansbridge try to perform Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines in public: the default form is dull, but the attempt is infinitely worse.

Mind you, there are some corporations that have perfectly fine Facebook pages. Look at them closer, though, and you’ll realize that they benefit from narrow focus: they’re done by one person or a small team, for example, or devoted to one particular product. Environment Canada’s super-broad mandate doesn’t really let them follow this model. Add to that the natural inclination to be all things to all people, and there’s your recipe for Facebook fail.

Posted in Blogging, Federal Government | Tagged ,

So Why Is Warren Kinsella Linking To An Anti-Justin Ad?

Okay, I do get that most of my audience would publicly declare that they wouldn’t give Warren Kinsella’s blog the time of day. Not surprising, given his normal anti-Tory stance.

However, one of Mr. Kinsella’s virtues is that, when he does become disillusioned with the way the Liberal Party of Canada conducts business, he has no qualms about posting his opinion, as well as an easy-to-comprehend analysis of why they’re wrong to be doing what they’re doing.

And so, of course, we come to one of his latest: an explanation of why his page has an ad linking to one of the sites the Tories have taken out to target Justin Trudeau on the “he’s just not ready” theme.

Yes, I do buy his explanation. I still don’t seriously expect Mr. Kinsella, come October, to X in the circle on the election ballot for the Conservative candidate in his riding. However, a few things to bear in mind:

  • Civility and politeness still count, especially in political practice. In today’s Internet age where silence and delay are routinely interpreted as rudeness, a professional (i.e. disinterested, clearly expressed) attitude counts for a lot in getting a message across. And you do get the impression from Mr. Kinsella that the Conservative agent had more of a professional attitude in dealing with this than the agents of the other two parties.
  • The Tories are reaching the right target audience with this ad and its placement. The LPC may not be willing to admit it, but there are people who’ve leaned towards them in past elections whose skepticism about Justin Trudeau is on the increase, especially given his public performance so far this past year. And you can also count among them the voters who went for the Conservatives in 2011 but are having some thoughts about not staying blue this time out. That’s the segment the Tories want to reach, and Mr. Kinsella’s site is one of those that said segment pays attention to.
  • It’s still a long way towards election day. I wouldn’t be surprised if either the LPC or the NDP manage to place an ad on Mr. Kinsella’s page too, now that they’ve seen the Tories take the initiative here. Mr. Kinsella may be partisan, but he still considers himself fair. The only fallout will be that the more extreme Tory partisan bloggers will say that the other two parties were essentially shamed into taking out ads on Mr. Kinsella’s blog. That is, if they were willing to admit that they paid attention to Mr. Kinsella’s site at all.

Sure, some of the more partisan Grits can yell (rhetorically speaking) at Mr. Kinsella for enabling this sort of exposure. But if they do … well, that would tell us some more about whether the Liberals have genuinely renewed themselves.

Posted in Blogging, The Third Party | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Tin Ear Lizzie

There is one truism in modern politics that its practitioners always seem to forget: politicians have never been, and will never be, “hip.”

It’s the nature of the beast. To have a career in politics implies an ability to display “leadership,” whether you’re an actual leader or a backbencher, as well as an understanding that one will play within the existing rules of order. “Hip” may imply internal integrity (“I follow my own code”), but in the event of a clash between one’s code and society, responsible politicians are expected to let the latter prevail, while “hip” ones risk their own external position by heeding the former.

It’s a distinction that seems to be lost on the Green Party MP, Elizabeth May.

The problem with Ms. May is that she absolutely, positively cannot do “hip.” This isn’t necessarily a handicap; neither Stephen Harper nor Hilary Clinton can do “hip” either, because “hip” is not a natural bent in either of their personalities. The trouble begins when an “unhip” politician tries to do a “hip” thing, and then either two things will happen: either they misunderstand “hip” and things fall flat, or they go over the top and risk destroying their internal credibility.

(Before you start: Stephen Harper’s piano playing isn’t “hip.” It’s something he only displays in public because he’s nagged to do so; he’s competent at it, but he’d never cut an album, not even for charity, and everyone knows that.)

The Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner is one occasion when both Ottawa media and national politicians get together to have fun and blow off steam. (No, it’s neither “dining with the enemy” nor the “old network.”) This is an event when doing “over the top” can be forgiven by the mostly insider audience — provided it’s done well. Imagine the late Herb Gray, a button-down Liberal, singing the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” dressed in vinyl trousers and studs and you’ll get an idea of what sort of entertainment can be considered successful.

Ms. May is an activist, and an anti-Tory partisan. This pretty much requires her to live and breath politics, in public, pretty much all the time, and her instinct is to do that whenever she has a public opportunity. The problem is she wanted to do something that would entertain with shock value, and the performance she put on unfortunately wasn’t far enough from her perceived public persona to be actually entertaining.

A lot of those who don’t like Ms. May are calling on her to resign, but personally I don’t think that’s worth the effort. First, as things stand now Ms. May is a leader of a fringe party and her performance has done nothing to persuade anyone that Green is worth voting for, but since that’s been the party’s standing over the past four years that performance isn’t exactly a threatening deterrent. Secondly, with an election coming up in less than six months, if she were to resign now the inclination would be to let her vacated seat be vacant until October, and even then there’s no guarantee she won’t run again.

And if she does run? Well, that video is out there, and no amount of lobbying YouTube or Google will guarantee its erasure from the public consciousness. Whether she likes it or not, Ms. May is likely going to have to explain what she did, over and over again, and explaining and justifying are never going to be winning strategies in an election campaign.

Posted in It Ain't Easy Being Green, Politics | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Random Thoughts On An Orange Alberta

  1. Well, those who would have thought Jim Prentice would be Stephen Harper’s successor should be thankful they didn’t bet any money on the idea.
  2. No, I’m not going to weep / wail / mourn the so-called “death” of conservatism in Alberta. Conservatism hasn’t “died,” it’s just suffered a long-overdue setback.
  3. Yes, I wrote “overdue.” Any political party that stays in power for over four decades runs the risk of growing stagnant and complacent. And ideology never confers immunity from voters desiring change.
  4. Do I expect the Alberta PC Party to go the way of its Saskatchewan counterpart, or the old Social Credit party in BC? I’d say the odds are pretty good that’s going to happen. If Wildrose plays its cards right, it’s a party all ready to fill the shoes of the main voice for Alberta conservatism.
  5. Some of the punditocracy seem worried that the new premier, Rachel Notley, may follow the example of Bob Rae’s first (and last) NDP government in Ontario. Frankly, she’s got better role models: the Romanow era in Saskatchewan is the most likely model of governance that Alberta’s progressives will strive to emulate, and that’s not a bad one, so far as provincial governments go.
  6. It would be a mistake — big mistake — to try to see an impact on the federal scene. Jim Prentice was away from federal politics too long for him to be seen as a born-and-bred Harperite in the same way that John Baird, Tony Clement and Jason Kenney are, so the idea of “Alberta will reject Harper” won’t fly. Premier Notley may get a “honeymoon break” from provincial voters, but that’s not really the sort of thing that can help Tom Mulcair.
  7. Yes, I know, it’s apparently snowing in Edmonton. That’s just the weather. It’s not a divine comment.
Posted in New DiPsticks, Politics | Tagged | 2 Comments

Why Peanuts Should Matter to Margaret Wente

There’s a passage in Margaret Wente’s otherwise readable Globe column that bothers me:

No matter how outraged we may be, the actual amount of money scammed from the public adds up to peanuts. The cost of Mr. Duffy’s lengthy trial, to say nothing of all those auditors monitoring the meals of all those senators for the past 14 years, will be many times more than that. Is this whole circus even worth it?

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. One: Camembert cheese, even under our milk marketing system, is not actually that expensive if you buy some at the grocery. It’s mainly because it has a … um, unique taste and texture that it’s considered a staple of the one-percenter’s daily diet.

Two, we are talking about airline food here, and that particular style of feeding people has never been especially considered to be a treat. Senator Nancy Ruth might have elicited more sympathy had she pointed out that eating airline food is not necessarily a hardship that citizens should put up with if they had a choice. Where the debate should have arisen is whether the Senator should have expensed her breakfast as opposed to paying for it out of her own pocket.

I wonder if Ms. Wente remembers the old saying: “look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves.” What we’re looking at here is a situation that perfectly evokes Parkinson’s Law of Triviality: citizens may not understand the nuances needed for legislations that helps further the cause of women’s rights or national defence, but by gadfrey we do understand our own personal spending habits and the need for discipline for our wallets and credit cards. Yes, we do expect our political elite, elected or otherwise, to spend money wisely, be it the taxpayers’ or their own; and no, we won’t buy the excuses that “it’s been done in the past and no one complained” or “everybody else does it, why not me?”

The National Post’s Matt Gurney articulates Ms. Wente’s plaint a little better:

Canadians have a weird cheap streak when it comes to our government and related trappings of state. We are not an opulent people, but we are a great and rich nation, with tens of millions of citizens and a trillion-dollar-plus economy. We can splurge a little at the top. Our government can have nice things … or should be able to have them, without it being frontpage news. Our habit of freaking out about stuff like this is why 24 Sussex Drive will probably collapse in on itself before any prime minister dares investing in fixing the damn place up, lest they be slagged for spending money on their own “personal palace” or some similar nonsense.

Ah, but there’s a reason why we have this “cheap streak.” When you’re bombarded for the past forty years with news stories highlighting the rapid expansion of government at all levels, complete with doomsday diatribes of deficit spending and pundits wringing their hands about the aging of the baby boomers and the shrinking of the revenue base, and when you throw in those stories about the elites in government splurging on 18-dollar orange juices and demanding privileges that are out of the reach of mere middle-classers — is it any wonder that taxpayers are a tad reluctant to trust the political elite with their conception of petty cash?

Posted in Can Cons, Politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Why Sensible People Don’t Become Members of Parliament

So what do you think of your MP? Odds are: not much.

I don’t mean that you have a low opinion of your member of Parliament. I do mean that whatever she or he does, doesn’t occupy a significant chunk of your waking time. (Unless of course you work in politics, which is a different matter entirely.)

I mention this because this recent matter of two ex-Liberal MPs should be giving the politically-engaged a bit of pause. Rex Murphy is of the opinion that the investigations process should have been made public. I honestly think such a move would have made matters worse.

First, it would have meant identifying the two female NDP members who made the accusations. The consequence of this would be that reporters would be assigned to profile and get background information on these two — and, because they are public figures (even more so because of this “open” nature of the investigation), their private lives would have been invaded. The media might apologize afterwards, but the damage would already be done.

Second, it would also mean the doings of both accused and accusers, past and present, would be fodder for the social media crowd. As a Facebook user I was startled by the sheer vitriol that popped up in my newsfeed against the dental students of Dalhousie University, when that “gentlemen’s page” scandal erupted. Since we’re talking about elected officials paid by the national taxpayer, I’d expect the vitriol to be at least ten times worse, fuelled by the more immature partisans out there.

Third, even though this involved only members of the Opposition, it’s all too easy to see this as a trap for Tory MPs, who would be tempted to make some smug remark about relative morality. Which is all the excuse the media needs to pounce on their lives, with every communal trip to the pub potentially magnified as the activities of an incipient alcoholic, every misstep torqued into potentially criminal misbehaviour.

Do you think it can’t happen? More to the point, would you trust our media, both commercial and social, to be responsible about handling this information?

I suppose it’s only natural that, when we elect our political representatives, we sort of expect them to be paragons of virtue. We take it for granted that they know how to behave in public, and that their private behaviour is scrupulously correct.

What we do forget, though, is that MPs, because they represent us, the great unwashed masses, are also human. And that, despite all their training in childhood and their education and whatever vows they took concerning their profession or their family lives, they can yield to temptation. They can fail, and fail badly. Ted Kennedy and Chappaquidick is the worst example I can think of. And today’s media environment, with its incessant opinion-spouting and rush to instantaneous judgement, means the consequences of a fall can be long-lasting, devastating in proportion to the actual transgression — and a deterrent to those people who could contribute something significant to the political debate, but are confronted by a high-and-increasing personal cost.

We need mechanics and engineers and physicians and, yes, academics to be in Parliament; we’re not going to get them if they feel that Big Brother has put them on a tightrope and expects them to do cartwheels on it 24/7.

Posted in Federal Government, Politics | 1 Comment