Thursday, January 20, 2011

New Democrats off to disastrously self-destructive start

The New Democrats’ stumbling start to the leadership race should leave loyalists in despair and raise questions - again - about the sense in forcing Carole James out as leader.
The contest has barely begun and it has been hit with a divisive scandal.
To be eligible to vote in the April 17 leadership ballot, people had to join the party by 5 p.m. last Monday.
All the campaign teams had scrambled to sign up new members who would vote for their candidate. They carted in completed membership applications - each accompanied by the required donation - through the day.
But organizers for Adrian Dix showed up with big batches of memberships and separate piles of cash, then started attaching the money to the application forms.
Candidates Harry Lali and Mike Farnworth both cried foul, Lali most vigorously.
The complaints were that the memberships weren't submitted with the money, as required, and that the Dix workers were still pulling the material together after the 5 p.m. deadline.
But the fear was that the Dix campaign had undertaken a campaign of mass sign-ups of instant members in South Asian ethnic communities. The stacks of cash raised questions about whether the new party members had actually made the required donations themselves or whether the campaign was picking up the tab.
It's a common political tactic. Send some well-connected operatives into a close-knit community, sign up hundreds or thousands of members, and you can control a riding association or a leadership race.
It's also destructive. The instant members disappear the day after the vote. Real party members find they've been elbowed out of the process, so they drift away. Supporters of losing candidates feel cheated. And the party is left, in many cases, with a leader without real support.
The New Democrats hoped to reduce the problems by setting an early deadline for new members who would be eligible to vote. It didn't seem to work.
The other candidates are right to be concerned.
The NDP had something like 12,000 members when James was ousted. The numbers have climbed as candidates signed up new members, but an influx of several thousand instant members supporting one contender could tip the scales. The race could be over before real party members were even sure who was running.
NDP provincial secretary Jan O'Brien ruled the memberships were valid. They got there before 5 p.m. even if they weren't complete by that time.
O'Brien acknowledged the rules issued to all the candidates said each membership must be submitted with individual payments attached, but she had now decided that was a "redundant, internal process." She woudn’t enforce the rules.
At best, the New Democrats look like bunglers, setting campaign rules - which most candidates played by - and then ignoring them.
And at worst, the party looks to be condoning mass sign-ups paid for by third parties and favouring one candidate over the others.
Farnworth said he accepts the ruling; Lali says he hasn’t ruled out legal action over the memberships.
The party might be able to satisfy both with a pledge to contact a large sample of the new members to establish if they actually joined and made the required personal donation.
It's hard to see any renewal in all this, which the anti-James people said they were looking for.
The four leading candidates are holdovers from the Clark government of the 1990s. Farnworth and Lali were in cabinet; Horgan and Dix were political staffers, with stints in the premier's office. Dix resigned after faking a document in an attempt to help deflect attention from Clark in the casino scandal. Only Nicholas Simons is a relatively new face and he is a long shot.
The race is already tainted with scandal and allegations of fraud.
And the Liberals, I expect, are very pleased.
Footnote: The Liberals are looking wise in having adopted a process that gives each riding 100 votes, no matter how many members it has. The votes are allocated based on a constituency vote. This reduces the benefits of mass sign-ups and gives candidates from outside the Lower Mainland, where sign-ups are easier, a better chance.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why MLAs don't get more respect

People should admire politicians, be proud of them. They should have the support of their fellow citizens, who selected them in an election process.
So why doesn't it work that way more often?
It's an important question. If the people we elect to represent us don't have our respect, neither does government or the rule of law. There is no reason to pay taxes or accept the rules of a government that you don't consider legitimate.
Rich Coleman just offered a pretty good example of part of the problem
MLAs have refused to reveal their expense claims - how much they get for food, housing in the capital and other costs.
They promised disclosure last May.
In July, it became a big issue when filings required by cabinet ministers revealed Ida Chong had claimed $5,921 in meal allowances - even thought she lived 10 kilometres from the legislature.
MLAs are entitled to a $61 per day meal allowance when the legislature is sitting or they're on government business. (No receipts needed; they can grab a bagel, pizza slice and burger for the day and pocket $40.) Chong claimed 98 days worth of meal allowances.
If you're from Dawson Creek, maybe you need a meal allowance. But not if you live in the capital and are paid $150,000 a year.
Chong is not likely alone. New Democrat MLAs from the capital region supported Chong. And they refused to say how much they had claimed in taxpayer-funded meal allowances.
But the good news was that the controversy forced MLAs to promise an end to secrecy by last September.
It hasn't happened. Mike de Jong, the former Liberal house leader, said MLAs were resisting disclosure of how they spent taxpayers' money.
No, said Coleman, the current house leader. "I'm not finding a lot of opposition to it."
It's January. Disclosure was supposed to happen four months ago. In the real world, that's a problem. There is no commitment on when taxpayers will get the facts.
Coleman wasn't being candid. If there was no resistance, the September commitment would have been met.
Kevin Krueger offered another reason politicians are held in disrepute.
The cabinet minister bristled during a Kamloops radio interview about an announcement of hospital improvements when the host noted New Democrat health critic Adrian Dix had campaigned for the changes.
"If there ever was a guy who shouldn't put his head up to get it shot off - as the soldiers refer to it - it's Adrian Dix," Krueger responded.
In the week after the week after a politician and 19 others were shot in Tucson, it was an especially dumb remark.
But it would have been a dumb remark anytime. Dix had pushed for needed improvements to the hospital, especially to equipment that left surgeons starting operations with dirty instruments. That's just the truth; slagging him doesn't change it.
Dumb remarks are human. Krueger said he realized right away he had made a mistake.
Still he initially told the Globe and Mail he wouldn't apologize.
Dix is "constantly negative" and has a "reprehensive history" in B.C. politics, Krueger said. "It was an off-the-cuff comment that I do regret, but I certainly don't think anyone owes Adrian Dix an apology."
So according to Krueger, only some people can be wronged. People who are "constantly negative" don't have the a right to expect fair treatment.
Krueger did apologize later. But it was too late. Who could know if it was his conscience, or the public affairs bureau commanding the change of heart.
These people can do better. Certainly many voters expect better of them.
The recall campaign against Chong looks like it will fall short of the required 40 per cent of registered voters. But it seems likely more people will sign petitions calling for her firing than voter for her in 2009.
Chong is a perfectly average MLA. The strength of the recall effort shows many voters expect more from their elected representatives.
Footnote: MLAs do have a high opinion of their own value. They can claim up to $19,000 a year for a capital residence if they're from outside Victoria. That's four times as much as a single disabled person gets in income assistance for shelter. Chong's meal claims were just slightly less than a disabled person gets for all expenses except housing for an entire year. And MLAs increased their pay 34 per cent in five years, while the average wage in B.C. rose 12 per cent.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

'Melding news with drama, politics with theatre'

The Globe had an interesting weekend piece on "Five reasons why gun control has been disarmed" on the weekend.
Anyone interested in building public/popular support around issues should take a lok.
I was struck by a section on the gun lobby's response after "a string of catastrophic school shootings" before the U.S. elections in 2000.

"So they called in the pros.
The NRA hired the Mercury Group, a high-powered consulting company that describes itself on its website as 'masters at melding news with drama, politics with theatre, and public affairs with popular buzz to make your message sing and your story sell.'
Their client list includes the Navajo Nation, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, and the Air Force Memorial Foundation.
Mercury Group worked with the NRA to identify key states to target with their new campaign: 'Vote Freedom First.'
The campaign featured radio and television ads, billboards, bumper stickers and 'other collateral materials.' Huge 'Freedom First' rallies were organized in dozens of cities in swing states leading up to election day.
Afterward, the NRA and Mercury Group declared victory, citing an 85 per cent success rate in state and local elections of sympathetic candidates, a pro-NRA majority seated in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and 'a pro-NRA President in the White House.'"

The Mercury Group's description of their role is useful for anyone who is thinking about how to influence opinion (or is the target of such efforts).