In defence of co-operation, a reply to the author of www.punditsguide.ca

After reading the “Pros and Cons of the Cullen Plan” blog post that can be found here, I wanted to write something of a rebuttal.

The author of the blog post took several issues with Nathan Cullen’s plan, the first being:

Suppose a local riding association decides not to field a candidate, or to endorse a candidate from another party. That decision could be overruled by headquarters, by having the leader appoint another candidate there instead. The party could even deregister the riding association (under s.403.2(2), though not during an election writ period), and then set up a new one to replace it.

Should the local NDP, Green, and Liberal riding associations decide to hold joint nominations with the Greens and Liberals, and the Liberal central campaign overrules their own riding association’s democratic will by appointing a candidate, how is that not a win for us? If the Liberals’ leadership decides to overrule the democratic will of their own members, then doing so may cause strife and hurt feelings amongst their membership and voter base. As unfortunate as that is for the Liberals, we can make hay with that all election long.

The next issue with the Nathan Cullen plan was as follows:

Here’s another problem: we often use the term “riding association” to mean two different things. Sometimes we mean all the party members who live in that riding and/or are members of that riding association (only members actually living in the riding may vote on who that riding’s candidate should be). Other times we mean the members of the riding association executive or board of directors.

But which body should have the right to enter into such an agreement with other parties and/or their riding associations? The riding board, or the riding membership? That would be governed by the riding association’s constitution and by-laws, and presumably those of the party as well.

This is a classic straw man argument that is easily solved by suggesting the following principle: When implementing the co-operation principle, local riding associations strive to uphold the strongest democratic principles. In any other action that a riding association undertakes, we expect them to uphold the strongest democratic principles, so why should we expect the riding association to behave differently when discussing this proposal?

Perhaps the author of the blog post has difficulties understanding how this policy could play out in practice, in which case, I can indulge them. At a meeting of the riding association, in a conservative held riding, an interested member brings this proposal forward. The executive does a straw poll, and finds that about 35% of the executive is in favor, 45% feels opposed, and about 20% haven’t yet formed an opinion on the matter. At this point a member suggests contacting the Liberal and Green party riding associations to see if they are willing to participate in this process. The riding association finds that the Liberals and/or Greens are in favor of joint nominations. 

Once the riding association decides that the idea has enough merit, and that they would have at least one of either the Liberal or Green party – or both – as a willing partner, the riding association would schedule a general membership meeting where it can be put forth to the members in the area. At that point they pick a date, publicise the meeting, and members can split into groups who are pro- or anti- the motion and go sell memberships or try to recruit active members to support their position. Assuming the idea was approved of by the party membership of all of the parties, the executive could negotiate with the other parties how to move forward from there.

The next problem that the author of the blog post had with Nathan Cullen’s co-operation policy was:

What if all the parties and all their governing bodies agreed on the general principle, but disagreed as to whether the tactic would work in a given riding?

I am not sure of the meaning of this question, so I will answer it thus.
If the question is: “What happens when everyone agrees that they will implement the policy, and the membership of all the parties support the policy, but what if they disagree if it would work.”

Then, to be frank, in every election I’ve ever been a part of the NDP, Liberals, and Greens have run candidates in an attempt to unseat a Conservative, and not every activist in every party agreed that it was the best tactic to implement. In fact, many mainstream political pundits have bemoaned the fact that we are running candidates against each other, and our own activists often acknowledge that in many ridings the Green vote total is larger than the difference between the Conservative’s margin of victory. Is absolute certainty of success the test we are holding ourselves to, despite the fact that none of us are certain that the status quo will achieve a better outcome?

If the question is: “What happens when all the various riding associations agree that the parties should co-operate as a general principle, but the NDP riding association members do not endorse the tactic for in their particular riding?”

Then, if the membership is favorable to co-operating, but votes against the idea for tactical reasons, then the membership has voted the idea… Obviously, if the membership votes against the idea, the executive would not implement it.

The next problem that the author of the blog post has with the idea is:

Now, how do you ensure it’s a fair contest? Let’s say we accept that each party’s run-off candidate will have already passed that party’s vetting and eligibility requirements, a membership eligibility cut-off date for that party’s nomination process would have been set, the membership list was agreed upon, the various candidates for the nomination within each party gained access to that list, they conducted a campaign, identified their supporters, and got them out to the first meeting to vote.

Now you have three duly-selected candidates, one from each of the 3 so-called progressive federalist parties, entering into a new race. Who sets the rules for that race? Who governs it? Do each of the riding associations give their membership lists to the other parties’ candidates so that they can conduct a proper campaign? (ding, ding, ding: big privacy bells should be going off here) Were their membership eligibility cut-off dates co-ordinated with one another? Or would new membership sales be allowed? If a person was a member of two different parties, could he or she vote twice? Would it be fair if the membership fee in each party was different? Is there a spending limit? What about a requirement to file a meeting report, or candidate financial returns with Elections Canada?

First and most obviously, no one is suggesting that some members could vote twice at joint nomination meetings. To put such an obviously absurd statement forward as a serious point of contention with the policy makes me doubt the author’s intentions when writing the piece.

My honest reply to the above concerns is this: Do you have faith in yourself and the other members of your riding association to think critically, speak intelligently on matters that affect you, and come to reasonable decisions? If the answer to that question is yes, then you have nothing to worry about. If, however, the answer is no, then you should be concerned regardless of whether you favor the co-operation policy or not.

All of the above points of contention can easily, fairly, and effectively be dealt with between the riding association executives. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that either your riding association are unintelligent people who will get swindled by the other parties (in which case you are in serious trouble if you wish to run a candidate against the other parties in a general election anyway), or that the riding association members from the other parties are so corrupt and evil that they will attempt to sabotage the system. The question becomes, do you have faith in your neighbors? Can you look at them as intelligent, honest people who want to unseat the Conservative incumbent as much as you do? Are you willing to put aside your differences long enough to put Steven Harper out of power?

The author of the blog post goes on to raise this objection:

Here’s still another problem: given that we will have a redistribution between now and the next election, and that the boundaries won’t be known until 12-18 months before the next election, many riding associations will have to be re-organized along the new boundaries, and thus will be undergoing a lot of governance changes themselves during the same period nominations are to take place.

Yes, seat redistribution will happen between now and the next election. Yes, riding association boundaries will change. Riding associations will have to take into consideration what polls are still in that riding, which polls have moved out of the riding, and which polls have been added to the riding when making their decisions. However this is nothing new, certainly redistributions have happened before, and even when they don’t, neighborhoods go thru processes of rejuvenation and decay. People move into neighborhoods, new condos are built, and people move out all the time. In every election, every EPC needs to take into account what changes have happened in the area, and how those changes will impact the demographics and values of the people who are currently living in the riding.

Put another way, do you have faith in the people you are working with to trust them with these decisions?

The author of the blog post goes on to say:

[you have to trust] that none of the candidates who had already waged nomination contests to win their own party’s entry into the joint nomination race decide after losing the joint nomination to either (i) appeal to the party to appoint them as a candidate regardless, (ii) run for another party that was not part of the joint nomination process (hello Canadian Action Party, Unity Party, Progressive Canadian Party, etc., etc.), or (iii) run as a serious independent

Obviously, this is another situation where we have a serious PR win on our hands. If a Liberal Candidate is willing to be nominated by their peers with the understanding that they will be subject to the joint nomination process, then loses and decides to run as an independent or as a candidate for a smaller party? We can only hope that this happens across the country! We would be competing against them had we not had joint nominations process, but in this situation they would have publicly blown their credibility out of the water prior to the election. I do not see how this is a serious objection.

The author suggests that the following is also a pitfall:

[You have to trust] that none of the party leaderships decide they can’t live with the outcome, and appoint another candidate instead

This objection is, in fact, the first objection that the author put forward, at the beginning of the article. Given that I’ve already dealt with it, I will move on to the next objection:

[You have to trust] that the party whose candidate won the joint nomination can properly fund that campaign, because under s.404.2(2.2) of the Elections Act only that party’s riding association or headquarters could transfer funds into that candidate’s campaign, not other parties or riding associations. And no riding association may incur advertising expenses during the writ period, only candidates or national parties. Presumably in the pre-writ period, other participating parties’ riding associations could spend some money advertising their support of the outcome.

If a party is organized enough to win a joint nomination, which is effectively a run-off election, then it should be understood that that party is likely stronger and more organized than the other parties competing with it in the joint nomination. If your team cannot win a nomination, you’re probably not the strongest team.

The author then states that:

Now, certain local kamikaze candidates could go rogue, I suppose, by accepting their party’s endorsement and getting duly nominated with the Returning Office, but then withdrawing from the ballot after the deadline for the party to replace them, if they really wanted to support a common candidate but couldn’t get their own party headquarter’s buy-in.

This kind of thing currently happens under the current system. In fact, in the last election an NDP candidate named Ryan Dolby in the southwestern Ontario riding of Elgin-Middlesex-London pulled out of the election and thru his support behind the Liberal candidate in an attempt to defeat a Conservative. This decision is was sad on a number of levels, as it denied the NDP members in the riding a chance to vote for the candidate of their choice, but it also denied them any input on how the decision was made.

Nathan Cullen’s plan is completely different in that it puts the decision making power directly into the members hands. When a candidate is in an election, they would know that the members chose to compete against a Liberal, even if that competition is a “fly the flag” campaign. Under the current system, there is no direction from the membership in the area as to what their will is.

Ultimately this is not a criticism of one policy or another, as it can happen in either circumstance. However, under Nathan Cullen’s policy the membership can make their interests known, which is certainly better.

The author of the blog post has a few more objections, the next one being:

would it actually even work, or would enough orphaned voters switch to the Conservatives or stay home if their preferred choice was not on the ballot?

Considering it’s never been attempted in Canada, perhaps it’s time to find out. His next objection is:

is it democratic or politically wise to be advocating the elimination of political choice for the public by a small group of political activists.

This is an interesting question. The current system denies political choice to our riding associations as a matter of course, that is, the option to co-operate with one or more of the other political parties. By doing so it allows the non-aligned public a chance to vote for the candidate of their choice who happens to have a major party backing them. I’m sure we all understand that the financial and other practical realities of FPTP preclude non-aligned members of the public from voting for the party we actually want to support (the Pirate Party, the Canadian Action Party, The CPC-ML, etc). FPTP is a broken system that limits choice, this is a proposal meant to break the logjam that FPTP created.

What we do know is this:  voters like co-operation.  The NDP has built it’s brand on this principle, and has had great success when expressing a willingness to renounce politics as usual and work co-operatively for the good of Canadians.  In 2005, we had the opportunity to defeat the government, but we did a budget with the Liberals instead.   We did better in the next election.  In 2008, we tried to form a coalition government.   In the next election we had a historic breakthrough.  

It’s interesting to watch our messaging in that time.   Here’s a sampling of the ads and other public messenging that we were running in an attempt to brand ourselves as we attempted to define ourselves as a party of negotiators, willing to with the other parties for the good of all Canadians.

  • Dogs.  This ad was a critique of politics as usual.
  • Hamsters.  Another ad aimed at positioning our willingness to do politics differently against the other parties who were either opposed to co-operation or distancing  themselves from it.
  • What is Canadian Leadership? This ad features Jack Layton saying “we’ve got to put the partisan games aside and work together to get things done”
  • Jack Layton speaking at the Coalition for Change rally. At this rally Jack Layton said “people want a new kind of politics here, they want parties working together” 
  • Where do We Start? This ad features Jack Layton saying “Canadians want someone they trust, someone who will work with others on things that matter”

These ads, together with the “Fix Ottawa” and “Travaillons Ensemble” ads and lawn signs built the NDP brand.  It created an image of the NDP as a party that is willing to work with our opposition and negotiate deals for the good of Canada. 

When the author of the blog asks if it is politically wise to co-operate with other parties, we have to answer that question in the context of the breakthrough we had  in the last election.  When doing so, we are wise to remember how we built the NDP brand.  We need to remember what we were proposing to the citizens of this country, and what they were saying yes to when they voted for our party. 

The next objection that the author put forth is:

could the NDP then run as effectively as one of the two main choices in the “consideration set” of the general election (a term coined by Innovative Research’s Greg Lyle to describe the process by which consumer choice is whittled down to two viable choices, and drawing parallels to voting behaviour), if it was at the same time enabling the election of one of its non-“consideration set” competitors.

This objection betrays a very strange assumption: that across a country as vast as Canada, there are two parties that are uniformly seen as the two main choices. In different parts of the country, different parties have different support bases. It’s true that in Saskatoon, the NDP and the Conservatives run neck and neck, and are seen as the two main choices in the consideration set. This hasn’t changed in the past 20 years.

However, I would suggest that just a few hours away, in a Regina riding called Wascana, the political reality is quite different. This is to say that the assumption that the objection is based on, that two parties run campaigns and the other parties are also-rans, is flawed. The reality of politics in Canada is more complex than that.

The next objection that the author of the blog post raised is:

tactically, what criteria would be applied for deciding whether a joint nomination would achieve the intended result or not in a riding with newly formed boundaries.

Seat redistribution was already brought up as a potential problem in the blog, but the author either forgot that they already raised this issue, or felt that they should bring it up again. As I have already dealt with this issue, and it’s getting late, I’ll move on. The next objection they raised is:

what is the cost-benefit analysis of foregoing the opportunity to build in that riding next time, foregoing the room under the national spending ceiling (which is affected by how many candidates a party runs in an election), and foregoing the rebate, organizational opportunities and other team-building in a riding association that result from waging a local campaign, even if it doesn’t win, as against the probability of being able to defeat the incumbent in a riding.

This is perhaps the most legitimate point that the author of the article has made, and it is surely something that the members of each riding association who is debating this policy would have to consider. I repeat, we should have faith in our people to make strong decisions.

In conclusion:

Should we grant ourselves the freedom to have difficult conversations, or should we continue the status quo, regardless of the member’s feelings or the circumstances on the ground in those ridings? Do we trust each other enough to make important decisions together? Do we trust ourselves enough to put down our feuds with our neighbors and work together? Can we bring ourselves to look at Liberal and Green party activists as valid, respectful, intelligent people with valid input, beliefs, and ideas?

This proposal challenges us to move beyond demonizing our opponents, and it asks them to do the same. We can have a more respectful politics. When politics is dominated by the ever present need to score points instead of making points, the process suffers and we all lose.

The co-operation policy encourages more participation by people on the ground, which will engage more people to become involved members of political parties. More involvement from ordinary citizens in the working of their political processes is a good thing. More citizen engagement is a good thing.

This proposal encourages and empowers members at the riding level. Democracy is strengthened when we empower grassroots citizens to get involved and make the decisions that impact them. We should not be afraid to have difficult conversations with each other, nor should we be afraid to work together.

I have more faith in our collective intelligence and political acumen than the author of the article, it seems. But what’s important here is the conversation we are having together. What do you think?