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On Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau will announce his candidacy for Liberal leadership tonight. Since word leaked of the impending announcement, it has received what must be a record amount of attention for a candidate seeking leadership of the third party in the House of Commons. Without a word of his platform being leaked, he’s already being dismissed by some, while others have preached caution and a wait and see approach.

Justin Trudeau
Flickr/jbach

I don’t follow the business of the House of Commons closely enough to speak authoritatively on his record there. I have heard Justin speak a few times, and come away impressed. I think he’s being unfairly judged or sold short in some areas, even before he’s launched his campaign.

On Policy
I’ve previously written about the missing agenda I see for all centre-left parties (and progressives as a whole in Canada). Speaking to Trudeau specifically, I think he’s being unfairly maligned for having unclear positions, though perhaps this is the trade-off he has to accept in order to receive disproportionate attention.

In spite of their long resumes in politics, how many pundits could tell you clearly where Thomas Mulcair, Brian Topp, Peggy Nash, and Nathan Cullen stood on the 5-10 key issues at the start of the NDP leadership race? 6 months into his leadership, would Thomas Mulcair be strongly associated with any policy or idea but for the words “dutch disease“?

As others have said, at this point, it is simply too early to tell. Once launched, if Trudeau’s campaign is built around photo-ops and the “OMG Justin Trudeau” factor, it will then be fair to accuse him of being a lightweight. I suspect this won’t be the case, and that the policies and ideas he does put forward will be examined on their merits, no different than anyone else. Given his background, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Trudeau have a particular emphasis of environmental and youth issues, which – as far as I’m concerned – would be a very welcome addition to political discourse.

On Leadership
For me, a key part of leadership is getting people interested, engaged, and excited. Trudeau clearly accomplishes the first at this point, and should he accomplish the other two, what’s lacking on his paper resume won’t matter so much. Most of the hands-on, tactical management will be up to his Chief of Staff and the party executive director in any case. His biggest challenge will be to engage caucus, find meaningful roles, and get people interested and excited in the party. A key test I will be looking for, should he win, is whether or not he’s able to attract talented candidates who are also new faces to the party. Should he ever position the party as a serious contender to form government, then his executive decision-making style will be a much greater consideration.

On Experience
Yes, his resume is shorter than many other candidates. Legitimate contenders for 24 Sussex tend to take one of two approaches to build their resume. Let’s call them the establishment approach and the entrepreneurial approach.

The establishment approach sees candidates gain experience and rise through conventional institutions to get to higher office. Most likely, this is within government, working one’s way up through party positions, or in elected office from backbencher to a critic/cabinet minister, and so forth. Think Jean Chretien or John Turner. Alternately, one may eschew elected office for a time and build party credentials and alternative executive experience (such as Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney, who had real executive experience, though little to no experience in office prior to running for leadership the first time).

Alternately, there is the entrepreneurial approach, building a party from scratch, or taking a smaller one and building it into a big tent. This is where one gains meaningful experience, and demonstrates their credentials. Preston Manning had a fairly anonymous career prior to founding the Reform Party; Jack Layton was an academic turned long-time legislator on Toronto City Council, but the closest he came to being an executive would be as President (Chair of the Board) at FCM. Stephen Harper’s career outside of politics consists of leading a small office at the National Citizens’ Coalition. All three showed their credentials by building effective political parties. Once they had done that, it was irrelevant that they’d never spent time in the executive suite at Canada Steam Lines or the Iron Ore company.

Bringing this back to Justin Trudeau, should be elected leader, he will inherit a party in distant third place, and is, quite frankly, not competitive in enough parts of the country to form government, and virtually non-existent in some. If he ever becomes a serious contender for Prime Minister, it will be because he has led a team and organization that took a party and brand in disarray, and engineered a successful turnaround. In other words, at such point in time he’d be no less qualified than the sitting Prime Minister and two recent leaders of the opposition who were not dismissed as having thin resumes.

I have higher hopes for Trudeau than most. I’m not about to anoint him as Prime Minister-in-waiting, but am excited to see him jumping into the leadership race tonight.

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Politicians Just Wanna Have Fun: Alberta Edition

A short, off-topic post. Given that politics is serious business, and most politicians tend to act as such, it’s nice to see the lighter side of elected officials sometimes. At the Premier’s Capital Ex Breakfast this morning, Premier Redford led her caucus in singing John Denver’s classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads“. Here’s a video I shot of their rendition:

Management Lessons from Canada’s 41st Election

The 41st Canadian general election took place one year ago today, heralding significant changes to the political landscape. Looking back, there are lessons in the results of that night that we can all apply to our organization.

Jack Layton in Edmonton I
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Challenge the Conventional Wisdom
For decades, everyone’s believed that the road to a majority government went through Quebec. Prior to his return to federal politics, Stephen Harper (and long-time advisor Tom Flanagan) advocated three sisters theory to conservative success in Canada – western populists, Ontario tories, and soft nationalists in Quebec. After failing to make a breakthrough in Quebec in successive elections, the Conservatives refocused their efforts elsewhere, and finally earned their majority with very little Quebec representation – a previously unheard of concept in Canadian politics.

Identify Your Core Audience/Market, and Focus on them Relentlessly
Building on the previous point, the Conservatives identified the voters needed to produce a minimum winning coalition, and zeroed in on earning their support. In particular, they focused on multicultural communities as a growth market, and their efforts have paid off in recent years.

Change Can Happen Suddenly, but Comes After A Lot of Groundwork
The NDP’s historic result came in large part due to a breakthrough in Quebec, winning 59 of 75 seats – up from the 1 they won in 2008. That breakthrough came in a 2007 by-election, after years of hard work. Since his election as leader in 2003, Jack Layton worked to build the party in Quebec – reasoning that the socially progressive base of voters in Quebec were a natural audience for the party. Results were slow coming, but in 2011, the tipping point was reached, and the party earned a major breakthrough that they’re looking to solidify under Layton’s successor Thomas Mulcair – the MP first elected in that 2007 by-election.

Don’t Take Anything for Granted
In their years as Canada’s natural governing party, Liberals seemed to grow in to the expectation that in the rare instances they’d lose – voters would come back to them in due course. Their grassroots had atrophied, and they lost a clear message to take to the voters. When supplanted by a more charismatic centre-left leader, and party with an appealing message, they lost big – having lost much of the core support they could once fall back on. Voters abandoned them for Jack Layton and the NDP, leaving the once-proud party with a long, difficult road back to success.

Without Diversification, You’re Vulnerable
The Bloc Quebecois had won a plurality (or majority) of the seats in Quebec in every election since 1993. From their roots as a sovereigntist party, they had settled in nicely to the role of looking out solely for Quebec’s interests in parliament – effectively acting as an interest group. When Quebec voters got tired of this message, the Bloc had nothing to fall back on. They were nearly wiped out – surviving with only 4 seats – down from 47 last election – as voters embraced ‘le bon Jack’.

The Missing Progressive Agenda (and Other Thoughts on the Eve of the NDP Leadership Vote)

The NDP leadership convention begins today. It appears that Thomas Mulcair is the undisputed front-runner, judging from his tremendous lead in support from MPs and other officials, as well as the recent arguments from Brian Topp’s surrogates. This also may mean that Topp is struggling to separate himself from a second tier of candidates that would include some, or all, of Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar, and Nathan Cullen (who himself is showing strong fundraising numbers, at least).

The prospect of a Mulcair victory is causing angst amongst some NDP stalwarts, fearing that he plans to move the party to the dreaded “centre”. Meanwhile, pundits are pointing out that the much revered, late Jack Layton, already did that. Cullen joins him on the “change” front, explicitly calling for cooperation with the Liberals in ridings won by the Conservatives last election. The candidates are disagreeing more on process than policy. Topp argues for a more traditional social democratic approach, and to “bring the centre” to the party. Nash and Dewar focus instead on tactics to increase the party’s base of support.

Thomas Mulcair
NDP frontrunner Thomas Mulcair.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Granted, I haven’t paid close attention to the contest, but what seems to be missing is a discussion on what the NDP agenda will look like, or who the voters are that will rally around that and form the core of a majority government, regardless of how aggressively the party moves to the centre (or not). This criticism applies to the Liberals (and Greens) as well, so from here on out, I’ll simply use the term ‘progressive’ as a proxy for any one of these parties. Whoever leads those parties (or whatever progressive parties may emerge through merger/attrition/split from existing ones) will face this challenge.

Brokerage Politics and the Minimum Winning Coalition
Any party that wishes to form and hold a majority government must be a ‘brokerage’ party of some sorts, encompassing identifiable constituencies of voters that are somewhat disparate, but have enough in common. Conservative organizers have understood this in recent years, advancing a strategy to build a minimum winning coalition of voters throughout the country. Progressive parties are lagging here. They understand on the surface that they must, for example, win more seats in the western provinces. Yet, the agenda and tactics to do so in sufficient numbers is missing.

The Missing Progressive Agenda
I understand that parties must occupy the “centre’ to win and hold office, and that it’s better to implement some of your agenda, rather than getting to implement none of it. Nevertheless, while a party must broaden its appeal to win (regularly), successful parties start from a foundation of principles and beliefs that can be easily distilled into an agenda for supporters. Yes, every party has principles it theoretically start from, but how many can explain in a few key themes what they stand for?

In the practical arena of politics, the conservative agenda has been ascendant for some time. It can be roughly distilled into the following ideas:

– lower taxes and regulation (for individuals and business)
– tougher sentences for criminals
– more individual choice in programs, instead of centralized, state-run initiatives
– an overall reduction of the state and its activities (reorienting towards its traditional functions)

Conversely, the contemporary progressive agenda has been in decline, in part because it has been difficult to pin down. Certainly, this camp is not short on ideas, but has struggled for decades to put them into a clear, coherent agenda. Progressive parties have tended to put forward an agenda seen as reactionary (defaulting to limits on trade/globalization, and a knee-jerk instinct to solve every problem with a centralized government program) or neo-liberal (embracing smaller government, and essentially conceding the argument to conservatives that the state is not the vehicle for social good).

I believe it’s a lack of a clear progressive agenda that in large part holds back a potential movement. Anecdotally, I see many of the progressive-minded people I know channeling their efforts into international issues, or politics on a local level. It’s not that they view the federal government as irrelevant, rather I believe there’s nothing engaging them in a meaningful way. They may show up to vote for the NDP (or Liberals or Greens), and in some cases may volunteer time and money, but are not engaged in the same way they are on the aforementioned issues. You can’t build a movement on irregular participation.

Until such time that a progressive agenda can be articulated, and attract a minimum winning coalition, progressives will find themselves in the position conservatives did for much of the 20th century, forming government only when one or both of the following happened – they found a charismatic, popular leader, and/or the dominant party lost support due to poor performance/scandal/voter fatigue, effectively forming government by default. History points to neither strategy being sustainable.

Key Questions
One of the key challenges is that some progressives are still framing issues around paradigms of their post-World War II heyday. Contemporary responses to the following issues, taking into account globalization, deindustrialization, demographic changes, and other phenomena, are long overdue:

– The role of a workforce, in particular unions, vis a vis both the private and public sector.
– The role of the state in funding social programs
– The importance of economic growth versus social and/or environmental costs that may be incurred.

Looking Up at the Calgary Tower
How can progressives win seats in places like downtown Calgary?

Towards a Progressive Agenda
What might a contemporary progressive agenda look like? Here are a few themes, and ideas off the top of my head:

1. Supporting a Triple-Bottom Line Economy
Advancing an economy and strategy for growth that accounts for environmental concerns and stewardship, as well as quality of life.

2. Equity and Opportunity for All
Ensuring equity – fairness and justice – especially in terms of opportunity for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background. In particular, it would focus on protection of workers with low job security, people experiencing poverty, New Canadians, and Aboriginal peoples. It would also pursue measures that protect workers, enhance skills of marginalized populations, and ensures fairness in terms of taxation and regulation between citizens and businesses.

3. Federally-Minded, But Community-Oriented
Supporting an agenda that doesn’t retreat from involvement, but does grant more authority and ability to effectively exercise power to local communities – especially municipal and Aboriginal governments. It would also advance greater local authority (but not autonomy) in terms of delivering social programs, recognizing that our federation is heterogeneous, and that needs and best practices may vary from place to place. The federal government’s role would be to lead, but also to set broad targets, strategies, and foster collaboration, rather than retreating to its “traditional” areas of responsibility under the British North America Act.

(For my provincially-oriented progressive views, read this).

Mildred Lake Mine
A balanced approach to the oil sands, and resource extraction, is needed, should progressive want success in the west.

With an agenda along these lines, what would a minimum winning coalition of progressives have to look like? It would lean heavily towards urban environments, winning support in and around Canada’s biggest cities – not just Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, but Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Quebec City, and Halifax, among others. It would win heavily on both the Pacific and Atlantic coast, and amongst federally and community-oriented central Canadians. Urban and Aboriginal voters would form its core in the west and north. (For a good primer on different ‘cultures’, read Colin Woodward’s ‘American Nations’. And yes, readers, I’m firmly a disciple of Yankeedom).

Progressives may (correctly in some cases) argue that they already advance causes along these lines, but I’ve yet to see it articulated as a clear, concise agenda. Until a progressive agenda for Canada in the 21st century can be articulated in 3-5 themes, or 30 seconds, supporters like myself can look forward to spending more time in opposition than government.

Stephen Marche said it best, in his assessment of Jack Layton’s legacy:

And yet despite the marked improvement in the numbers, the left has never been in a worse state by the simplest and most meaningful gauge there is: its effect on the lives of Canadians.

While I disagree with aspects of his critique of Jack Layton, on this point, he is absolutely right. Barring a reorientation, and stronger focus on a clear agenda and constituency, progressives can look forward to more of this in years to come.