A Newly Civil House of Commons

It has been a pleasure to watch the House of Commons Question Period the last couple of weeks. The members seem to have truly taken NDP Leader Mr Jack’s Layton’s challenge to heart. This has, just looking anecdotally, led to what feels like more questions being asked. It also feels as though women appear to be more prominently featured, which is an excellent thing too. Much of this is owed to Mr. Layton’s keeping his civility pledge. This seems to have really taken civility forward! Maybe now is the moment for civility to be brought to the fore in a structural way. Mr. Michael Chong has proposed such reforms in the past – might it be a good moment to bring them into a larger debate?

Whatever the case, it is impressive that MPs are opting for more civility.

Hats off to Mr. Layton for leading the change. He is doing something good for Canadians, for if this civil discourse continues, citizens may start tuning in to QP again!

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Life-Love 97: Being bold

Fortune favours the bold, said the classical Roman poet, Virgil.

It is easy to live life meekly. In fact, our culture encourages meekness and self-effacement. We are told that we shouldn’t speak too much of our accomplishments, or the people we know. We are told that we should fit in and conform. What’s most surprising is that the individualistic culture of social media and the Internet, seems to have actually encouraged the opposite personality! Facebook and Twitter feel like they are having a levelling effect on many of us – presenting a normal way of thinking about politics, fashion, morals and even things like what we feel is right, or good or true. So while we feel in control as we surf the boundless ocean of information on the ‘net, we feel the weight of communal opinion, rather than the freedom to be ourselves.

This is logical, in a way. Social media has brought us into a more oral culture than before. We read less linearly, we jump from hyperlink to hyperlink. We focus less and make quicker judgements: “Is this page pleasing to me? Should I stick around?” The quick-change nature of the medium encourages us to graze information and to look at things that we might find objectionable or difficult to hold in our hands, if they were written in a magazine or a book. When we hold a magazine or a book, it feels like we take more responsibility for the contents of those communication products than when a flickering assembly of light and colour and sound dances in front of our eyes as the result of a click.

In a word, the culture of social media encourages conformism. That’s why it is so refreshing when we feel the drive to be bold. Being bold means stubbornly sticking to principle and values in a room full of people with whom we disagree. There is nothing more uncomfortable, but ultimately more satisfying than busting up a dinner or cocktail party by refusing to participate in spreading a rumour, or, stubbornly defending someone who is being gossiped about or even slandered. Sometimes being bold requires putting your neck out, and being considered a carmudgeon, black sheep or a stick in the mud.

It is reassuring when someone does this. It makes you feel more comfortable in the world, knowing that someone is standing on principle. It makes that person’s behaviours predictable and reliable. It means that you can count on that person to stand up for you if you are standing on truth or principle. Being bold means sometimes striking out on your own and walking a lonely path. Being bold about the truth means that you are shooting an arrow into the future, an arrow whose trailing filament will lead others to the bold vision that you have had. They will follow its shimmering arc, and find its landing spot. There, they will congregate around you or your idea, and you will have changed the world.

Virgil was right.

My thoughts on #elxn41 weeks 3 & 4: “No greatness here anywhere.”

This election feels like a non-event – quite boring perhaps – and that is exactly where the Prime Minister and his Conservative Party want it to stay. However the interesting story is really what is going on with the centre and centre-left, with the Liberal branding problem which has allowed Jack Layton to swagger in and pretend he owns the place.

In a sense, the campaigns really only have a couple of days left, this being the Easter weekend, and Thurs-Fri-Sat being taken up by discussion of the Royal Wedding.

The opposition Liberals have struggled to establish an identity and presence for their leader, Michael Ignatieff. The two years of consistent negative branding by the Conservatives and NDP through successful advertising and an Internet-based whisper campaign have proved to be very hard for Mr. Ignatieff to overcome in a short campaign time. The NDP has surged in the polls, trying to fill in this branding vacuum. The Greens just seem to have run out of steam.

The Prime Minister’s Campaign – Textbook.

The governing Conservatives have – by and large – been running a state-of-the-art, cautious and well-managed campaign. They have been able to stick to their core brand, and high-tone vision for Canada in an authentic-sounding fashion. This effectively counters the fear-based tactics that Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Layton have been using: “A Harper majority will change Canada.”

Two examples. The Conservative answer to Auditor General’s G20 report was very simple: “the document isn’t valid yet.” Their answer to the allegation that they have been co-opted by pro-life groups to cut funding to Planned Parenthood was straightforward: “Prove it.” These sorts of factual and aggressively rational responses to emotional appeals work.

The Prime Minister is staying above the noise. He handily won the English-language debate, looking imperious while Mr. Ignatieff was halting and hesitating, and Mr. Layton was bobbing up and down and blurting out hipster clichés. Mr.  Harper certainly looked prime ministerial. When thinking about whether someone looks “prime ministerial” ask yourself how you would react to that person standing beside Barack Obama or Hu Jin Tao at an international podium – if that’s hard for you to imagine, then the person is not giving off a prime ministerial allure.

A side note. In fact, the hugely popular comparisons on Twitter between Mr. Harper and Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars actually serve to reinforce this message of “strong leadership” for the PM.

The Liberals – Searching for a Message and a Tradition

One of the biggest problems that I am seeing in the Liberal campaign is the type of political cultural strategy they are using. Politics is about people. It’s visceral – it’s blood and sweat. Politics is about the dreams and fears of the populace. The Liberal Family Pack addresses these visceral things quite well. But politics is also about a national dream, a national mythology, a national persona. The Liberals, starting with Sir Wilfrid Laurier have always been exceptionally good at tapping into the veins of our beloved country’s past and tying them eloquently into the stories of the present. The Liberals, from Laurier to Trudeau, were the party of Canada’s history and tradition.

Neither Mr. Harper nor Mr. Ignatieff is capturing the imagination of Canadians. Mr. Harper is offering a nice goodie bag (double TFSA, income splitting, etc.), but no dream, no vision. Mr. Ignatieff’s “Rise Up” speech sounded tinny and uninspiring. There was no greatness in that speech. Canadians are awaiting a great leader and have grown to expect this from the Liberals. The standard is high.

Look at Jean Chrétien. He was a superb politician, but his pandering to political correctness and his lack of high-minded rhetoric did violence to the Liberal brand. He was a fiscally competent Prime Minister, and kept the country unified through a referendum (something that it is hard to imagine Harper doing, with his polarizing ad hominem attack strategy). But Chrétien didn’t propose a grand narrative for Canada. And he made many cultural mistakes. One big one that resonates to this day, and is an appropriate example on this Holy Saturday, was Chrétien’s banning of Christian prayer at the Peggy’s Cove memorial service for those who died in the terrible Swissair accident. This would have been acceptable had Chrétien banned all religious prayer, but he didn’t: he allowed other religious groups to pray. Christians never forgave him for that episode.

That sort of error feels like a betrayal. It makes Christians feel as though Chrétien was out to get them, to marginalize them. It may have been politically expedient at the time, but it did not send an inclusive “Great Canada” message to Canadian Christians. While this couldn’t be further from the truth, that is how it resonates. This destroys trust and drives voters into the hands of the Conservatives.

Trudeau got Canada – even those who hated him, admired him (and often wanted to be him). He got Canada’s greatness, and he got Canada’s beautiful and complicated history of compromise and consensus-building. The Liberals need to weave the Liberal story back into Canada’s story, Canada’s national history, national mythology, national dream. They need to show that they are for a Great Canada.

They need to do this via social media. But that will be the subject of another post.

Jack Layton and the Politics of Resentment

Jack Layton is an ambitious man. He is someone who has spent his political career pandering to special interest groups to move his party closer to electability. He has never given any indication that he cares about socialism. He seems to ready to say anything to exceed Ed Broadbent’s record-setting total seat count before ceding the leadership of the NDP to someone else.

In fact, the NDP platform is really just a more left-of-centre version of the Liberal one, and un-costed at that. Layton has proven himself good at being against things: against the Prime Minister’s perceived lack of concern for “working families” (which is, in itself, a slam on other silently suffering groups such as the unemployed, the infirm, etc.); against Michael Ignatieff; and the list goes on. The question no one has really asked him is what does Jack Layton’s NDP really stand for?

Jack Layton’s NDP have made inroads into Quebec following the French language debate, and are trying to lure the values voters who support the Bloc Québécois. Their support in the rest of Canada is fairly stable, with minor increases in Ontario and the Maritimes, and a larger increase in BC, as evidenced by Nik Nanos’s latest numbers. Most notable are Jack Layton’s leadership numbers, which seem to be climbing. As Chantal Hebert explains very cogently here, Mr. Layton’s climb has to do with the Liberal support of the extension of the Afghanistan mission.

Layton has always been good at playing the aggrieved party. He is a good at tapping into people’s resentment at being excluded from power – both economic and cultural. He isn’t good at providing workable solutions. But when you are in the position of being a third party in Parliament, you have a lot of room to play on the margins of credibility and get away with things. This isn’t the high-minded political strategy of someone who wants to be Prime Minister, but it may certainly raise the NDP seat count. The problem is that the politics of resentment aren’t good for Canada or for the progressive movement in Canada.

It will be interesting to see where the NDP end up in this election. They have been given a free pass from the media, their gappy platform remains un-examined. There is no greatness in Mr. Layton’s political communications. Just a lot of resentment, ambition and clever tricks.

So where is this going for the centre and centre-left?

So what’s going on? Why is the NDP making inroads on the Liberals? Mostly because the Liberals are not keying into their history as the progressive, nation-building alternative for Canadians. The “Great Canada” vision of Laurier and Trudeau versus the “Humble Canada” vision of the Conservatives.

They have not cultivated a grass-roots campaign for the last several years that builds a powerful and educated membership willing to be evangelists for the Liberal brand. They have not ‘friend-raised’ enough. In fact, they have been arrogant. Ever since Paul Martin took over the party, it has been a party that thinks is really ought to be in power. Martin ran a front-runner’s campaign and lost. Dion ran a weak campaign based on an intelligent, but complicated political-economic theory that the Liberal political communications machine couldn’t explain to Canadians – and lost. Mr. Ignatieff is running an oddly subdued campaign that lacks the fire and brimstone that an opposition campaign should have – he is not using the traditional Liberal “Great Canada” brand thus opening the progressive door to the NDP.

This election has in many ways been a referendum on the Liberal brand as it stands today. The answer has been that it is not a clear brand. Its connection to history is tenuous. Its resonance with Canadians is weak. The Liberals need to tell a better story – their story – a story of the most successful classic liberal party in the world.

As for the NDP replacing the Liberals, it is as bad a thing for the left as it was when Bob Rae’s NDP swept into power in Ontario in the 1990s. It was a tale of ambition, incompetence and shoddy governance. Why do I say this? Because the NDP hasn’t won the progressive vote with effective political communications. They have not created their version of a “Great Canada” narrative that they are proposing to Canadians. Jack Layton’s NDP is simply filling a vacuum.

So who won weeks 3 and 4? – Mr. Harper, hands-down.

While it is tempting to credit Jack Layton with wins for the NDP surge, I actually don’t think he’s the big winner. The big story is the incredibly effective and competent campaign being run by the Prime Minister and his team. They are winning the battle for Canada’s imagination. What do I mean? Conservatives are winning by making sure that Canadians don’t enrich their expectations with their imaginations. In this way, they win the war of imagination. They are also winning the battle for voter trust; the battle of perceived competence.

Weeks 3 and 4 go to Mr. Harper.

 

My thoughts on the #elxn41 French #db8: A Good Night for Ignatieff & Duceppe.

General Overview & Critical Opinion

The French language debate was everything the English language debate last night was not: exciting, passionate, substantive. Each of the leaders was able to get his party’s platform point across. Viewers and listeners got a real sense of where the candidates stand on a wide variety of issues concerning French Canada.

What I didn’t see was listeners and viewers as participants. This is necessary to engage the “Social Media Generation” that I talk about below. This was a very traditional and competently argued debate. But it didn’t take the genre forward to meet the needs and demands of the social media savvy electorate.

Other failings: Francophones outside Quebec and First Nations people were excluded. A terrible injustice. Silencing their voices doesn’t make them go away or cease to be Canadian. They need representation in future debate.

While there was no clear winner, Mr. Ignatieff posed the greatest improvement from his performance in the English debate the night before. Mr. Duceppe owned the show, Mr. Layton was competent in his usual jokey and self-righteous way. The surprise of the night was a petulant and weak showing by the Prime Minister: a stark contrast to the command performance he delivered in the English debate.

The moderators – a definite asset

The debate’s moderators, Anne-Marie Dussault and Paul Larocque, were active and engaged. They kept the leaders focused, and often provoked them into going into more depth on specific points that they were making. They were also quick to interrupt the leaders if they started rambling or speaking too long. Very successful.

The set – a definite liability

First of all, the set was very unattractive. The colours and pattern were distracting from the leaders. In fact, the colours were close to skin tone and made the leaders fade into the background for me. Not successful.

Also, there was a sound quality problem that I noticed this time around as well. The sound was better tonight than during the English language debate, but it was still relatively poor quality. This was very disappointing. One would expect a consortium of Canada’s national broadcasters to do better.

Camera angles: perceived improvement

The camera angles felt a little different tonight. There were fewer wide shots including all the leaders. There were more occasions to have a good full-frontal look at the leaders as they interacted. It fest more natural and more conversational. Not sure if this is just my perception and not reality, but that is how it felt.

Body Language – Standing, pointing, shrugging, staring

The leaders used body language much more effectively last night. The fact that they were standing seemed less constraining for some reason than the night before.

Mr Ignatieff looked natural and comfortable. His shoulders were relaxed, his arms held in a casual way on the sides of his body.

Mr. Layton was his usual animated self: lots of grand gestures and bobbing up and down.

Mr. Duceppe was back to his usual comfortable self, unlike the nervous, “removed” and hunched posture he had in the English debate.

Mr. Harper was the one who looked stiff and robotic last night – he wasn’t comfortable and had the same uncomfortable posture that Mr. Ignatieff had in the English debate. The roles were completely reversed.

The facial expressions were engaging and natural. There wasn’t a feeling that the leaders loathe one another like there was in the English debate. There felt like that there was more respect and collegiality – something that was completely lacking in the English debate.

Quality of the Leaders’ “French Personalities”

It is amazing how people can seem to have a different personality in a second language.

Mr. Layton did not. He was almost exactly the same in French as in English: a little poncy, a little self-righteous, but generally friendly and engaging. His uvular “r” (the throaty R that French people use) was a little too strong. There were many comments on Twitter that made fun of the fact that he was over-emphasizing it.

Mr. Harper was transformed in French. His usually sardonic and bored tone changed into a sybillant, lispy, soft boyish voice that was actually quit disarming. The Prime Minister sounded almost beseeching, as though he really wanted listeners to like him. This is in contrast with the commanding, imperious and dismissive tone he used in the English debate. The softness of “French Stephen” was a discovery.

Mr. Ignatieff was transformed. He was focused, commanding and engaging. He got his ideas out in a powerful and passionate tone, with a lot of authenticity and sincerity. French seems to become Mr. Ignatieff: very impressive. He sounded like the sincere, open and candid man that has been so successful at engaging crowds and inspiring people during the first two weeks of the campaign.

Mr. Duceppe was on his home territory in French. he did very well, as expected. But he didn’t have as spectacular an advantage over Mr. Ignatieff whose French is excellent and Messers Layton and Harper whose French is very good.

A debate among equals

Perhaps it was the softness and desire to be liked of  ‘French Harper”, or perhaps it was that the other leaders were more focused on being engaging, but tonight’s debate felt very much like a debate among equals. This was closer to the sort of more human behaviour that it would have been nice to see in the English debate. This allowed the leaders’ personalities to come out, their visions to be elaborated, and their challenges to one another rebutted.

The Issues – Highlights

It stands to reason that a debate in French would address the concerns of French Canadians.

The discussion of issue of Quebec as a nation in Canada was interesting. Ignatieff and Harper both said they recognise the status of Quebec as a nation. Mr Layton did too. Mr Ignatieff had a great line: “I believe that Quebecers should be able to define themselves – within Canada – as Canadian and Quebecers in whatever order they choose.”

There is a problem with this nation-recognising love-in, however. It ties into the criticism I make below of the place of the francophones who live outside of Quebec. What is their place in this definition of Quebec nationhood?

The constitution was a big focus in this debate, with a fairly detailed discussion started by Mr. Duceppe’s comment that Quebec had never actually signed it. Other points were employment, where Duceppe scored one of his traditional zingers: “Of course this is about jobs. When has it not been about jobs?” The fighter jets issues was treated in a more substantive way too.

Policy platforms were presented effectively

One of my biggest criticisms of Messers Ignatieff and Layton in the English debate was they didn’t discuss their respective party platforms in any detail. I found that in fact they managed to highlight all of the Conservative platform policies, even simply by mentioning them over and over – not mentioning their own policies.

They fixed this in the French debate. Mr. Ignatieff was successful in weaing his platform policy points into his answers and challenges to the other leaders. Mr. Layton was a little less successful this way – he didn’t get the substance of the NDP platform across effectively.

Duceppe vs. Layton: no real fireworks.

Many observers (me included) were expecting more fireworks between Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe. This plays in Mr. Duceppe’s favour. Mr. Layton did very little during the debate to make inroads into the social democratic “soft and moderate left” voter base that the Bloc Québécois owns in Quebec. However, neither was Mr. Duceppe really able to paint Mr. Layton as a solid federalist. I would call this one a stalemate. In practical terms, that means: “Advantage-Duceppe”.

Francophones outside Québec – Completely ignored

There are many Francophones outside of Quebec. They constitute a diverse mosaic of cultures and linguistic difference that stretches from the Acadians of the Maritimes, to the Franco-Ontarians of Windsor, Penetanguishene, ON, and Northern Ontario; to the diverse francophone communities of African, Caribbean, Arab, Asian and Oceanic descent that inhabit Toronto; to the Francophones of the prairies; and of, course the many francophone who live in BC and the Great North: NWT, Yukon, Nunavut.

Where were these people represented in the debate? Do they not exist? Excuse me, but they do, and they form vibrant communities that have made massive historical contributions to the Canadian identity, economy and culture. They continue to shape Canada today. They deserve better.

Here’s a radical thought: perhaps the Bloc Québecois should expand their mandate beyond Quebec and start representing the interests, anxieties and concerns of this vast group of francophones who feel completely abandoned as the BQ focuses the definition of the “French Fact” on Quebec exclusively. This would help them make Quebec issues more relevant to the rest of Canada.

First Nations People – Missing again

Even if you want to make the case that this debate was about French issues, you cannot ignore the powerful voice of First Nations people in Quebec and the rest of French Canada. The absence of First Nations question askers, and the lack of substantive discussion of the place of First Nations people in French Canadian culture was terrible.

First Nations people need their own debate.

Perhaps we need a special debate that will put the leaders into a First Nations mindset. Let’s see APTN host it. Let it be done according to a set of ecumenical First Nations cultural norms (there are many diverse First Nations cultures in Canada). That would be refreshing. That would enable Canadians to see the country from the perspective of one of our three founding peoples.

A few comments on format.

The 6 minute focused interaction idea is ok, but randomly assigning the theme is not. It ends up with mismatches or with candidates being assigned a topic that they agree upon. Asking Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Layton to debate social welfare is really splitting hairs – both are leaders of socially democratic and socially progressive parties.

Drop the dubbing? Please yes. Give viewers subtitles.

Many anglophone Canadians won’t tune into the French debate because it is in French. But this is not a core group. The larger disincentive to watch is the dubbing. It is horrible, distracting and annoying. Why did Stephen Harper have a lispy interpreter who was hard to understand? Why did Michael Ignatieff speak with a British accent? Why did Jack Layton sound Scottish? Why was Duceppe the only one with a manly Canadian accent? The dubbing was strange, amateurish and very off-putting.

A simple solution: have a French-language option, set on a slight lag, to allow for live sub-titling. This is possible. One only has to see how good some journalists are at “live-blogging” to see that it can be done.

“Live Subtitling” in future French debates please. It is more inclusive and less annoying.

Look and Feel – the Internet demographic demand collegial behaviour!

Having the leaders stand is a bad idea. I actually think they should be sitting in comfortable chairs or at least around a table. This will encourage collegial exchange and more “human” presentation. The social media interactions people have been having with candidates have been very casual and conversational. Standing is not natural – have them sit down. Give them a cuppa tea or coffee each, some notepads, and let’s have a great conversation about who should lead Canada’s future. This aggressive, “debate is war” metaphor doesn’t work with the Internet generation: and that generation includes Millenials, many retired people (55+, especially women). The “Social Media Generation” is both young and old – the leadrs dismiss the social media generation in the same way they dismiss youth to their peril.

This isn’t a question of smarmy use of Internet lingo – that is inauthentic and insincere: it won’t work (hint to Mr. Layton).

You want more participation – start catering more to the personal, human, conversation, inclusive, collegial zeitgeist of the “Social Media Generation – Young and Old.”

This is important – the debate organizers should pay heed to it.

So, who won? Duceppe – but he doesn’t matter that much.

Well, Mr. Duceppe won, but he is really a non-entity outside Quebec.

Apart from him, the latest polls from Nik Nanos are showing that the Liberals and NDP have made gains. Most polls are showing Mr. Ignatieff coming second after Mr. Duceppe.

Debates matter. They are the true start of any political campaign.

Now the leaders have the challenge of taking the debate momentum into the crucial final two weeks before election day.

My thoughts on the Canadian federal Leaders #db8: A Non-Event

The federal Leaders Debate last night was a real disappointment. Disaffected youth voters will remain that way, First Nations people were ignored and even insulted, French Canadian cultural policy was dismissed, and little substantive policy debate of the different platforms was offered to the public.

The Prime Minister was aloof, often simply challenging the voice of authority of the opposition leaders rather than engaging with them. The opposition leaders fought and bickered among themselves. The Prime Minister didn’t have anything to prove. Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Layton did. And they really didn’t manage to make any knock-out punches.

No one really won, which means the Prime Minister won, since the public will not remember much from this debate except how it made them feel. The PM will come off as having stayed “above the fray” while the other leaders bickered amongst themselves. That means that the PM will be able to continue coasting toward election day.

A Social Media Debate? No, rather a frustrating traditional debate.

This is Canada’s first federal social media election. A remarkable number of Canadians are spending a lot of time and effort connecting with one another on social media to discuss policy ideas and to try and persuade one another and their political candidates. We are seeing the country make this election local, personal and meaningful through social media. Savvy candidates from every party are tweeting and facebooking away, connecting with constituents and journalists. Journalists are talking to journalists and citizens are listening in. It’s democracy in action, with the whole country acting as a big town square.

The leaders debate embodied little of this.

Harper rarely looked at anyone he was speaking to, rather focusing on some unknown entity in the middle distance off to the side. He also dismissed everyone as either saying untruths or not knowing the real facts. After looking a little flustered early on, he settled down quickly and was calm cool and collected throughout most of the debate. He took a “father knows best” tone that none of the other leaders were able to take away from him. In that sense, he owned the discourse.

Ignatieff never really got his game on – he sounded like he was warming up a couple of times: when he went at the Prime Minister on contempt of Parliament, and when he discussed health care and crime. But it seemed to fizzle both times. He didn’t use any numbers to counter Mr. Harper’s claims of “that’s simply not true…” and “the fact is…” These statements w0uld have been easily rebutted with simple counter-factual statistics.

Layton was the most relaxed, starting with a clever rhetorical trick, asking the Prime Minister why he had “changed” his values. However, as the night wore on, his gimmicks became annoying: piously citing his family’s multicultural credentials was self-righteous-sounding and annoying; using language like “hashtag fail” and “bling” felt like a cynical and ironic attempt to “connect” with young voters. However, in the end, I think he came off as most likeable, engaging and human of the four leaders.

Duceppe sounded angry and peevish: wasting a lot of time by focusing on details. He didn’t play his usual “clever gadfly” role as well as he has in past debates. He seemed off his game as well.

There was little authenticity, sincerity, or coffee-table style exchange of ideas and discussion of alternatives. There was no conversational tone. There was little respect towards anyone, least of all the long-suffering audience, which expressed its frustration with the event vocally through the #elxn41 and #db8 and #cdnpoli Twitter hashtags, all through the event. Campaign staffers from each party should analyse the Twitter commentary tomorrow and realise how “off-base” the leaders were from the “social media-inspired” conversational codes of communication reciprocity, a focus on ideas, as well as a feeling of sincerity and authenticity.

Also, the conversation was discourteous. A good example: while Layton’s comment that the Senate harboured criminals may have elicited chuckles, it was in profound contradiction with the tenets of Parliamentary courtesy. It was one of the most uncivil comments of the evening.

A bizarre conversation about multiculturalism in French Canada

The discussion of multiculturalism as it relates to French Canada was very strange. Mr. Duceppe was put into the bizarre position of elaborating and then defending the unique French Canadian approach to building a diverse society in a few fleeting seconds. How can he be expected to outline and defend a whole cultural policy agenda? Especially one whose detail, history and meaning most English Canadians have never really been taught through school or the media. In English Canada, the French Canadian alternative approach to diversity is relatively unknown.

The attacks were not respectful of the fundamentally different cultural context that French Canadian cultural policy has developed within: being a minority that had to fight for its rights and emerge from under a system of oppression from various sources that lasted until WWII. French Canadians did not have the same cultural power position as English Canadians when multiculturalism started – it had a very different meaning for the French and – obviously – was handled differently.

This part of the discussion showed that a colonial and patronising approach to French Canadian cultural policy from English Canadian politicians is still the baseline standard. That was sad to see.

Attorney General’s G20 Report – dealt with efficiently by Harper

Mr. Harper was able to quickly and effectively deal with the one big issue: the Attorney General Sheila Fraser’s G20 report fairly summarily. He dismissed it as a document that the AG had declared: too preliminary to be valid. And that was all he needed to say about it. That appeal to third-party, arms-length authority of the AG was enough to make it a no go for the other leaders for the rest of the debate.

Ignatieff tried to debate the PM but never penetrated his teflon armour

Ignatieff never managed to penetrate the Prime Minister’s armour. Like I mentioned, he got warmed up a couple of times, but he fizzled in front of Stephen Harper’s constant “message wall” : “The fact is…” or “That just isn’t true…” Ignatieff could have turned this debate into a serious conversation about policy, instead he often ended up sounding like he was hectoring or nagging the Prime Minister, who patronized Mr. Ignatieff and condescended to him.

Mr Harper – slowed things down and stayed “above the fray” effectively

Mr. Harper did exactly what he needed to do in this debate: reduce it to a non-event. By slowing down the pace and using negativity as a “cognitive eraser” – we tend to remember negatively framed discourse less well than we do positive or inspiringly framed discourse – he managed to make the debate a frustrating spectacle for the television audience.

However, his patronizing and disaffected tone also means that most of the blame will be assigned to the oppoistion leaders by the uncommitted voting public. Obviously, committed Liberals and NDPers will say he ruined the night, but the general voting public will probably perceive him as “tolerating” the the other leaders’ attack. The three other leaders attacked one another, while Harper stayed above the fray – engaging little and sticking to his message that “they just don’t get it” and that he has a special “grown up” perspective because he is Prime Minister. None of the other leaders was able to knock him off the “I am the grown up here” pedestal that he positioned himself on.

Youth vote – ignored

I didn’t see any serious attempt to connect with the youth vote from any of the leaders. Apart from Mr. Layton’s inappropriate stacking of the terms “hashtag fail” and “bling” in one sentence, youth were never spoken to, and their concerns were only really brought forward by Mr. Ignatieff when he spoke of the Liberal education fund of $4000 per student. This was the only element of the Liberal platform that Mr. Ignatieff was able to really bring out and explain his vision for during the entire debate. Mr. Layton, Mr. Harper and Mr. Duceppe did nothing to address youth concerns. Youth will, sadly, remain a disaffected voter demographic after tonights debate. It just didn’t speak to them.

In fact, at the McMaster University undergrad student pub, where I was watching the debate was a bit of a focus group for this. Honestly, the students I was surrounded by were not connecting with the debate and left without much to say about it. It was yet another irrelevant political non-event for them. And these were young women and men who had chosen to spend their evening at the pub listening to the debate. Imagine how little this debate would have resonated with a non-politically engaged youth group.

First Nations people – absent and insulted

No First Nations person asked a question. The only times First Nations people came into the discussion was when Mr. Layton decided to bring them up in the same breath as a discussion on crime. Now, he meant well – he didn’t mean to be demeaning to First Nations people. But it still stands that the only time they were mentioned tonight was in connection to crime.

This was terrible. First Nations people are emerging as a youthful, constructive, unique and creative force in Canada’s culture, economy and politics. They deserve better than to be solely brought up in the debate in an example linked to crime.

So, who won? No one. That means Harper *benefits* the most of all.

You have to make a distinction between winning and benefiting in debates. There was no clear winner tonight.

No clear winner means that the incumbent and the front runner benefits the most – Mr. Harper. The Prime Minister may now coast along on his successful poll numbers and edge closer to election day with a majority just beyond his grasp (for now).

For Harper to have won over votes from the Liberal, NDP and BQ bases, he would have needed to take some risks. He didn’t. He played it really safe. This means that he certainly didn’t lose any ground, but didn’t gain much either.

Harper needs to be more substantive in his assertions about policy ideas and more personally engaged in debate if he hopes to ever break through to majority territory.

Image linked to from globeandmail.com.

My Thoughts on #elxn41 – Week 2

This election has, for most Canadians, been a non-event thus far. The majority of people who will tune in are going to do so after the debates, the first of which will happen Tuesday, April 12.

This week, the Liberals scored some victories by taking an opposite tack to the strongly negative beginning of Conservative campaign. The Conservatives attempted to make this a campaign about Michael Ignatieff’s family history, the fact that he spent many years as a successful journalist and professor in the United Kingdom and the United States. That didn’t work, so they began hammering on the “Liberal-led leftist coalition”.

The Coalition Theme is Bombing

The coalition verbiage hasn’t worked, mainly because there has been no coalition announced. Nor Mr. Layton, Mr. Ignatieff or Mr. Duceppe even mentioned the idea of coalition. In fact, a cursory search for #elxn41 and “coalition” on Twitter search, yields a very mixed stream of tweets, many of which are satirical or positive. The coalition theme seems to have bombed.

Ad Hominem Attacks on Mr. Ignatieff – Mixed Results

The ad hominem attacks on Mr. Igatieff seem to have had a little more staying power. The advantage here was that the Conservatives have been pushing this message for months and months, spending a lot of money on their “Just visiting” campaign in 2009/10 and more recently on their “He didn’t come back for you” campaign. Anecdotally, I get the feeling that this messaging had a negative impact on Canadians’ impression of Mr. Ignatieff – the result of a classic longterm audience cultivation theory approach to political marketing.

The thing is, that everything is up for grabs during a campaign, and the Liberals have done an excellent job of promoting a hopeful, optimistic and open campaign narrative in their ads. Mr. Ignatieff’s focus on his past as a war reporter in Afghanistan and his “A Canada we can be proud of” ads were both highly successful. It remains to be seen whether the boiling pot of a campaign can move attitudes and opinions that have been set through two years of careful audience message and image cultivation. This is one thing that I am watching for.

It is interesting to note that cultivation theory works. Nik Nanos, the most scientifically accurate pollster in Canada, has released numbers which suggest that Mr. Ignatieff’s leadership numbers are basically flat, and that Mr. Harpers are on a slight wane. Mr. Layton’s leadership numbers have declined slightly.

Release of the Platforms – A non-event, really

The Liberals decided release their Red Book by doing a social media-friendly online town hall meeting that Canadians could tune into and participate in by tweeting questions. This was undoubtedly successful, and served to stabilize and invigorate their base. Mr. Ignatieff’s tour to promote the platform this week was powerfully positive as well. He brought the message to my adoptive hometown, Hamilton, (I am originally from King City, Ontario) and had a spectacularly successful event at Liuna Station in Hamilton Centre.

Meanwhile, the Conservative platform was released online during a speech by he Prime Minister. The platform is long and detailed, with a definite focus on the importance of creating a very positive operating climate for business in Canada, while providing expanded income-splitting, which reinforces traditional living arrangements where one partner stays at home. The Conservative platform is written in a strange way – a mix of highly aspirational language about aiming for financial success, improved health care and higher international prestige both for individual Canadians as well as Canada as country. This is in stark contrast with the highly politicized language of the platform, which mentions the coalition no less than 42 times.

The Red Book was focused around the Liberal Family Pack – a set of policies meant to appeal to middle-class voters who comprise the traditional Liberal base. That seems to have worked, as the focus on youth, education, healthcare investment, and reinforcing the CPP provide a good foil to the Conservative focus on corporate tax cuts, income splitting, law and order, free trade agreements and fighter jets.

The NDP did not release their platform this week.

Why didn’t voter intention move more drastically?

You might ask, then, why voter intention hasn’t moved more. Again, according to Nik Nanos, there has been a slight narrowing of voter intention with the Conservatives at 39.5% support, slightly higher than their starting number of 37.6%; the Liberals surging forward to 31.6%, from their start at 26.2%. The thing is that both have gained at the expense of the NDP, whose support has dropped to 14.7%, from a start of 18.2%.

What this tells me is that Mr. Ignatieff’s powerful performance and friendly image are so far only consolidating the Liberal base and encouraging moderate NDP supporters to view the Liberals as potential left-of-centre champion. They have yet to penetrate into the Conservative base, which has held solidly at above their baseline of 37% support. Really, what Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberals have done up to now is guarantee that we might see a similar result to the current configuration of Parliament, while at the beginning of the election, it looked as they were staring down a precipice.

The Liberal challenge is to penetrate the Conservative fortress of 37% support to make this election start to seem winnable, rather than “come-from-behind” or “just-put-in-an-honourable-showing”.

The Transformation of the NDP … into the Bloc Québécois

What this tells me is that the public is more and more perceiving this election as a two-horse race. This is in keeping with Duverger’s Law, which asserts “that a plurality rule election system tends to favor a two-party system.” I think what we are seeing is the NDP reduced to a special-interest party (serving the few unions that still only endorse the NDP, some agricultural cooperatives, and a motley crew of academic radicals and urban hipsters) with clots of support in British Columbia and Atlantic Canada, while it withers in Ontario and the prairies. In fact, in Ontario, apart than a couple of strongholds like: (i) Hamilton, where the NDP garners a large percentage of votes and many citizens still feel a traditional affiliation to the party; and (ii) parts of Northern Ontario where there is a syndicalist NDP tradition; the rest of Ontario really is a barren wasteland for the NDP.

In some ways, the NDP is starting to look a lot like the Bloc Québécois, as a highly-localised, special-interest party (which is supported by Québec unions, French-language supporters and Québec sovereigntists). I think the biggest irony here is that the only real growth area for the NDP nationally is in French Canada, where they will fight with the BQ to split the left-of-centre and syndicalist vote. Either way, I think we are seeing the beginning of the end for the NDP as a true national political alternative.

Elizabeth May’s Exclusion – An old, boring song.

While I like Elizabeth May personally, I don’t think she has been an effective force in propelling the Green party into the mainstream. Media coverage of the GPC’s campaign has been minimal, and the outrage at her exclusion has been muted. Since this is the second time around this argument for these leaders, and most of them are bringing out the same talking points around it as last time (the Consortium needs reform, we should move to an MMP system, etc.), it all feels like a re-hash. No progress in the narrative in politics = boring. Media and public boredom with your message = political death. Plus, we just haven’t seen much growth for the GPC, other than among “civil liberties” types, who are mostly abandoning the NDP. I suspect that after this election, we will hear many calls to fold the GPC into what has become an environmentally-friendly Liberal Party of Canada. There is an ideological match there, since the GPC seems to have largely picked up a lot of the slack of the old Progressive Conservative Party.

Conservatives Excluding Youth From Rally Because of Facebook Profile – Off-Code

A brief note on the Conservative exclusion of a young woman from one of their rallies because of her Liberal-friendly Facebook profile. While this is decidedly off-code for the “social media election” which tends toward equality of voice and inclusion; and while the Liberals capitalized on it quite effectively with a timely advert; the entire episode read more like a side-show than a fatal flaw, although it did reinforce the impression that the Prime Minister is running a closed, safe, front-runner’s campaign. This permitted Mr. Ignatieff to make much of the fact that everyone, from every partisan affiliation is welcome at Liberal events. A small victory for Mr. Ignatieff, perhaps mostly a moral one.

The Debates: A Changed Game in the Social Media Election?

It will be fascinating to see how the debates change the landscape, and what approach the Leaders will take in the debates. As I said in a previous blog post, in this social media election, the public will be expecting authenticity, candour and sincerity from the Leaders, not talking points, canned messaging and ad hominem attacks.

Social media makes the whole election feel like it is happening in the living rooms of the nation – it is making the whole spectacle feel very real and very personal to individual Canadians. The Leaders had best take note of this and debate accordingly!

Final Verdict: Week 2 Goes to Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberals

While I am giving week 2 to a newly confident Mr. Ignatieff and his boyant Liberal team, I have to note that the Conservative campaign has been steady and “above the noise.” They are running a competent front-runner’s campaign.

The Liberals need to start eating into the core Conservative base of 37% support, if they hope to turn their successes into a government on May 2.

 

My Thoughts on the April 7 Ignatieff Town Hall in Hamilton

Tonight I attended Michael Ignatieff’s town hall in Hamilton at Liuna Station. Over 1000 people attended according to The Spec and CTV News – three times the number who attended the nearby Harper rally in downtown Hamilton. It was a very good night for Mr. Ignatieff. He definitely carried the momentum that he had gathered in Week 1 into this event.

The Crowd – More proof of significant NDP defections and the NDP’s struggle for relevance

The crowd was mixed: a large contingent of Liberal faithful, but many “normal” people in evidence as well too. It was definitely a bigger crowd than just the “usual suspects” who turn out to any given party’s political rallies. The were many recognizable NDP supporters who were either holding signs supporting the Liberals or being very vocal about the fact that they are supporting the Grits this time around. This is a necessity for the Liberals in Hamilton, which remains one of last NDP strongholds in Ontario, even though their stranglehold on the labour vote has been significantly weakened, given Harper’s validation of the Liberals as the left-of-centre alternative to his right-of-centre Conservatives.

The feeling of irrelevance attached to the NDP that I have talked about in previous posts was even more in evidence here, as NDP supporters vocally admitted that their party “can never form a government.” I think this election represents a true identity crisis for the NDP, which finds itself creaky – with aging demographics and a very uncertain leftist ideology.

I am very interested to see how the NDP come out of this election – I suspect they will come out of it with their brand vastly diminished and their relevance as a national party in serious question.

The Preamble – Evidence of a well-organized rally

I got to the event a little early with my former honours thesis student and close friend, Melonie Fullick. She is a superb photographer, and took many great snaps that she has posted to her blog, which you can see here.

There was a powerful buzz in the air, even 60 minutes before the event. The Carpenters Union was demonstrating loudlyin support of the Liberal party in front of Liuna, as were a motley crew of other activists.

The room was packed. I was fortunate to know one of the event’s main organizers, Hamilton lawyer and Liberal organizer Mr. Tyler Banham, who got us great seats in the second row, behind the MPs. There was a real regional Liberal show of strength, with Andrew Kania, Frank Valeriote in attendance, as well as all local candidates, including Michelle Stockwell, Anne Tennier, Bev Hodgson, David Braden and many others. Popular provincial Liberal former Minister Ted McMeekin was also present.

The crowd was expertly managed – they were let in 15 minutes before Ignatieff arrived and had just enough time to get settled and excited, without getting restless.This is often a problem at political rallies – the crowd is allowed to start to fester and they grow restless and grouchy. That didn’t happen here.

David Braden introducing the candidates – the night’s only real weakness

The event was introduced by Mr. David Braden, the Liberal candidate for ADFW. Sadly, he was the only person who didn’t perform well all night. He made a hash of his lines, hesitating awkwardly, tripping over his fellow candidates’ names as he introduced them and taking more than his allotted time. A good high-energy smooth introduction is a serious plus when putting on a rally – it hypes the crowd up and gets everyone ready to be on a buzz and a high when the Leader does his walkthrough. What it does too is make the walk-through from the door to the podium seem like its taking less time. When you’re on a buzz, time is compressed at an event. When the introducer is low-intensity or stumbles, it feels like the Leader’s walk-through is taking a long time, because you are waiting for him to hype you up, to do the work that the introducer failed to do.

It was a relief when he threw to Anne Tennier, candidate for Hamilton Centre, who expertly and enthusiastically welcomed Michael Ignatieff and announced his entry into the hall. her intro was warm and from the heart – an excellent preview of what would be the night’s themes: inclusion, enthusiasm and honesty.

Ignatieff’s stump speech – setting the scene

Micheal Ignatieff then took over and gave a heartfelt and sincere greeting. He put the focus on the excellence of his team, saying several times: “The other guy is a one-man show. I am lucky to have a team. A team made of talented, caring people.” It was classy and forthright. Excellent political communication. Honesty, transparency, consistency and sincerity. Very satisfying.

After parsing out the main issues for the crowd – he put the focus on Stephen Harper’s Jets, Jails and Corporate Tax Breaks, and how this de facto spending meant that any meaningful social justice spending on ordinary Canadians would have to be put off until 5 years hence. He contrasted this with the Liberal Family Pack, which he pitched as a “value investment in our families and our future.”

The messaging was powerful and accessible to “ordinary” Canadians, and made him seem like someone who truly cares about Canada’s families. It very effectively broke the “distant professor” or “haughty intellectual” branding that Harper has tried to taint him with.

Ignatieff takes questions – thorough, thoughtful and heartfelt.

Mr. Ignatieff then took questions from the crowd. The questions were obviously neither scripted nor contrived. The first questions came from young ladies from McMaster who asked him about the impact of his $4000 per student allowance. Ignatieff answered sincerely, saying that it was not enough, but that it was a “the first measure ever to put a dent in rising student debts.” Other questions centered mostly on health care, universal equality, gun control, economic opportunity, employment insurance, fluoride in the water, international policy, and the fighter jet purchase.

Ignatieff answered each of these questions thoroughly and thoughtfully. He was earnest in admitting the limitations of the Liberal approach, but said that any fiscally prudent plan during a time of economic recovery would have have certain limitations. He stressed that the fundamental principle that underlies the Liberal approaches to all of these problems is equality.

He parsed the fighter jet issue particularly well, taking a very complex set of messages and interpreting them for the audience very effectively. This is one of the trickiest things to do in politics – take an idea that is an easy sell (think patriotism and the inherent mystique of Top Gun fighter jets) but very hard to critique (expensive, doesn’t necessarily generate jobs in Canada, single-engines might conk out over the Arctic) and make your critique understandable while making the person who made the promise look like he has pulled a fast one over the public. Ignatieff managed to do this with the fighter jets issue. He came back to it several times in several different questions, reinforcing the message each time and further parsing out the meaning and importance of the fighter jet purchase to the Canadian people from different angles. Masterfully done.

He stayed on message throughout, even taking an off-the-wall question about whether he thought that fluoride in the drinking water is toxic and converting it into a thoughtful question and answer about the importance of water to the Canadian economy, identity and our national prosperity: “I want Canada to be the go-to country when it comes to water issues around the world! I want us to have the expertise.” This is a classic positive political communications manoeuvre – faced with a question that sounded a little crazy and to which he couldn’t really give an answer for want of data, he actually made the questioner look good by reinterpreting the premise of the question as being about something that is of mainstream concern. I noted that a member of Ignatieff’s RCMP detail discretely ran over to the questioner as Ignatieff left the stage to collect the materials and make sure that the man felt he had been heard and taken seriously. Again – a political communications win: that man and all those in his proximity will see that Mr. Ignatieff was true to his promise of transparency and openness.

Ignatieff’s concluding remarks – building a national culture of respect, equality, prosperity and hope.

He then expanded on that saying that classical liberalism demanded equality of opportunity, but that he wished to extend this to “equality of hope.” That each Canadian had the democratic right to hope, however that person defined hope for him or herself. It was a powerful message that resonated with the crowd. They were with him and he was on fire. He had several standing ovations during the event, including two during his closing remarks. Very impressive. Hamilton is a tough town for politicians: it is one of the most politically-engaged and savvy cities I have ever been in, and often extremely sceptical of politicians making promises or using high rhetoric to bring across leftist points. Mr. Ignatieff surfed these expectations expertly tonight – hitting just the right chord of populism and high-minded labour unionism to win a tough Hamilton crowd over. This was textbook political communications when you’re in a tough town.

After the event – a long crowd walk and scrum

After his concluding remarks, Mr. Ignatieff made himself available for a major crowdwalk that lasted at least 20 minutes, and then spent pretty much as much time in scrum with reporters as he left Liuna Station, and even tarried for a long time just outside the Liberal bus. This is something that politicians often neglect – they are tired and a little frazzled after 2 hours of talking and answering questions, and they forget to pay respect to the citizens who took time out of their evening to attend the event. Making yourself available after an event to both journalists and the citizenry, to answer their questions and hear their concerns is incredibly important.

Some closing thoughts – the most successful Liberal rally I have been to in a long time.

I stayed to get a feel for the crowd as it dispersed – it was buzzing like crazy. Mr. Ignatieff gave these people something to dream about, something to discuss and a giant dollop of crackling energy. I watched as clumps of people made their way to their cars or to the buses or over to nearby pubs. They were animatedly talking about the event.

A small criticism of an otherwise almost flawless performance from Ignatieff was that he didn’t make a call to action at the end of the event. Generally, that is a good way of building up the volunteer base for local candidates. It could be that the positive energy of the event will inspire people to get out and volunteer, but it is always a good move to be direct when asking for people to take action as volunteers. People like to be asked directly. It makes them feel as though they matter.

Final Thoughts

All in all, I don’t think I have seen a Liberal political rally go this well since Chrétien was winning in the 1990s. Mr. Ignatieff managed to create a sense of purpose and energy; a sense of electricity and hope. He certainly has carried his momentum from week 1 forward into Hamilton and built up even more with this rally.

Now it is up to Mr. Ignatieff and his Liberal team to keep the snowball he has started growing and rolling forward faster and faster. Let’s see if he can do it. It’s a challenge, because up to now polling hasn’t shown significant movement in voter intention away from Mr. Harper. Time will tell whether Mr. Ignatieff’s positive thinking campaign will lead to a real swing in momentum. I think this weekend will be quite important for that.

Myself and old friend CSMM alumna Melonie Fullick at Ignatieff Hamilton Rally. Photo: Janice Lukas.