Saturday, October 10, 2009

Off to Hike the Appalachian Trail

I'm on vacation for the next week.

I have two pre-drafted posts on time delay to go up during the week, but don't expect any commentary on news events even if something cataclysmic happens, like the government falling or Michael Ignatieff playing the harmonica.

For now, I'll re-post the piece I did up for the National Post online edition a few weeks ago, offering my humble advice for the Liberal Party. In light of what's been a rather difficult fortnight, it's probably worth a second look.

In my somewhat biased opinion, the good ship Liberal appears to be back on course. We're raising money, are running commercials that introduce our captain to Canadians in a positive light, and have shifted the role of "Harper's lap dog" to Jack Layton, much to the delight of Liberals and fans of irony everywhere.

But, there's always room for improvement when you're a Liberal in opposition. So here's some friendly advice:

1) In the words of Leo McGarry, "Let Ignatieff be Ignatieff". Michael Ignatieff is a brilliant man who has made a career out of offering well-reasoned opinions on a wide range of issues. So let's hear them.

To further quote the West Wing, we've seen far too much of Uncle Fluffy - a brilliant politician afraid to plunge into controversial issues or to offend. The most recent example of this is the harmonized sales tax, where the Liberals have been all over the map - one day it's the "Harper Sales Tax", the next McGuinty announces Iggy is cool with the Harper Sales Tax, to which the Liberals replied "we're in opposition, don't ask us what we think!" That won't win them any new votes and it certainly won't motivate provincial Liberals in Ontario and BC to volunteer next campaign.

It almost seems like Ignatieff has been caged; I would love to see him set lose. His biggest asset is a brilliant mind, so he shouldn't be afraid to use it. Show Canadians what he stands for. Presumably the man returned home because there are issues here that are near and dear to his heart. So tell us about them.

2) After the last election, through to the Vancouver convention, there was a lot of talk about the need to fix the Big Red Machine. Everyone was abuzz over a 308-riding strategy, the renewal committee, the change commission, engaging the grassroots, and building up the party from the ground. But it seems like little has been done since then. I know, I know, the election hokey pokey we're in makes it difficult to focus on that. But it's still important.

I talked about some specifics after the last election, and I'd really like to see a concerted long-term plan to build the party up from the ground. The end result should be a party that is organized in 308 ridings and seriously competitive in at least 175.

There are a lot of ways to get there, but the best idea I've heard is to have a between-writ door knocking program, where every riding association canvasses at least once or twice a month (preferably with the candidate nominated - that means early nominations). That will pay off in the next campaign, because they'll have more ID'd voters and sign locations, and in the long run it will mean new members and donations. To compete with the Tories, we need a database of voters, members, and donors as big as theirs (yes, I admit it, I have database envy), and this is the best way to go about doing that.

3) You don't need to oppose everything for the sake of opposing it. The Harper government isn't wrong 100% of the time. Try to rise above the pedantic pettiness of Parliament every now and then.

Similarly, there's no need to turn every misstep into a "gate". When you call for a minister to resign every week, it loses its effect after a while. Sure, if there's blood in the water and you can bring someone down, go for it. If a Tory MP from a swing riding is vulnerable then, yes, go for the kill. If you can tie it to Harper, then great. But really, is anyone going to change their vote because Lisa Raitt's assistant is forgetful? I'm doubtful.

Sometimes, it looks good to rise above the fray.

4) Get an economic plan. Because, right now, Ignatieff and Flaherty are singing from the same hymn book - deficit magically gone within 5 or 6 years, no new taxes, and no cuts to transfer payments.

Here's a recent press release the Liberals sent out on ways they're different from the Tories - outside of a bold and controversial promise to "think of workers rather than votes", there's nothing in there on the economy.

No one blames Stephen Harper for causing a worldwide recession, so if you want to score points on the issue, you need to have a plan that's different from the Conservatives for how you'll dig us out of the hole. Given the rather shaky record of Mr. Great-Buying-Opportunities, and Jim Flaherty's ever-evolving deficit projections, I think voters are more inclined to trust the Liberal plan over the Tory one. But only if there is a Liberal plan that's different from the Tory one.

5) Always remember to look outside the Ottawa bubble. People who live politics, watch Tom Clark, or know what a Liblog is are not your target audience. So avoid the "inside baseball" stuff and make sure every message and every policy can be explained in 10 seconds or less. Preferably less.


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