Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Obama effect

The Obama effect

This was an interesting article in the Good Friday edition of the Ottawa Citizen written by Susan Riley. She begins by talking about Barrack Obama's appeal not only to voters in the upcoming U.S. election, but how he strikes a chord with Canadians as well. She reflects on how many of us are drawn to his more conciliatory and collaborative approach to politics. Here is an excerpt:

From the sponsorship scandal to the Cadman affair, our own politics have been driven by distractions for years, with no end in sight. The economy is on auto-pilot, the dangers of climate change are ignored and the opportunities missed, nothing gets better for aboriginal Canadians, the health care system continues to stagger while this vibrant country is poorly-served by its menial-minded, risk-averse leaders.

That is why Obama's message is echoing north of the border. Is there an Obama here? Not yet. But the Green Party and its articulate leader, Elizabeth May, while still on the political margins, offer a glimpse, at least, of less destructively competitive, more positive, vision. It started with May and Liberal leader St├ęphane Dion's agreement not to run candidates against one another in the next election, an unorthodox, principle-based alliance aimed at advancing a green agenda. As the Greens become more threatening -- their surprising surge in Vancouver Quadra apparently came at the expense of Liberal votes -- the relationship may fray. For now, however, says May, "if St├ęphane Dion can keep trying to be collaborative, I'll try too, even if we're in a system that discourages cooperation."

It is telling to contrast this approach with comments made earlier in the week by Bill Tieleman, who was communications director for NDP BC Premier Glen Clark back in 1996. He was discussing the by election results of March 17, 2008. Here is an excerpt from his blog titled NDP Needs Some Class!

The popular perception about the byelections is that the only real winner was the Green Party, appropriately enough for a St. Patrick Day's vote. The Greens increased their support considerably, more than doubling their vote in Vancouver Quadra, finishing in second place ahead of the NDP and Conservatives in Willowdale, and a very close third to the NDP in Toronto Centre.

That's all true. But it's not necessarily bad news for the NDP.

Crazy spin? Demented analysis of electoral politics? Not at all.

Because what both the federal byelections and the provincial poll clearly show is that the New Democratic Party can perform dramatically better -- if it does two simple things -- move sharply to the political left and embrace populist positions.

Tielemen then puts forward a strong argument for the NDP to focus on the "class" differences between those who vote for the NDP and those who vote for other parties. He takes issue with current NDP leader Carole James. He points out that she "has gone out of her way, for example, to speak to chambers of commerce and business organizations, telling them the NDP wants to work with business and is not a threat."

He then quotes James and what she told the Surrey Chamber of Commerce:

"As leader of the NDP I have worked hard to reach out and build bridges to BC's business community -- small, medium and large -- and to make the case that the traditional political divides in this province should no longer shape our relationship," James said. "As I have said many times, in today's economy New Democrats and business leaders share far more in common than ever before."
In Thieleman's view

...that's the wrong message. NDP voters want to see the party defend them against their bosses and the powerful business community, not work with them.
As much as the NDP often like to claim to be "grassroots" and collaborative in their approach, in this instance, they are falling into the trap of playing"winner take all" politics. Tieleman is clearly advocating this type of old style divide and conquer tactics that focus on "class versus class" struggles, as opposed to finding what brings us together in common interest. It is such a tired
argument, the existence of which should clearly be pointing us in the direction of electoral reform that moves us away from our current First Past the Post electoral system.

Tieleman is not making his "move sharply to the political left" argument based on policy, but because it is, in his judgment the way to "win". Let's find our "wedge" issue and sculpt out some votes, he seems to be suggesting, as opposed to presenting policy that is correct and sustainable for our constituency in the long term. He certainly wouldn't be getting my vote based on that appeal strategy.

Yes, elections are about winning. However, speaking as a Green, the desire to win should not get in the way of us behaving in a collaborative manner that seeks to focus on our shared interests, as opposed to constantly hammering at the differences of our positions. On this I shall always be advocating that we take the high road. If we practice divide and conquer politics, we are no better than those we criticize. We need to walk the talk on this, and all of our issues, and model the behaviour we want to see around us.

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