Tuesday, March 27, 2012

NDP 2012 Convention Recap

As promised last week I will offer some reflections on the NDP Leadership Convention. This was the first political convention (or any convention) that I have attended. I have never spent much time in downtown Toronto, so that experience was a first as well. The NDP convention was held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, which very successfully makes you feel dwarfed by your surroundings.

After passing through registration I made my way to the 700-level where the various campaigns had their headquarters. On the way into the building I passed volunteers from the campaigns greeting me and performing demonstrations to drum up support. By my assessment the Peggy Nash supporters were particularly vocal and prominent in the hall. I quickly connected with the Nathan Cullen campaign staff and expressed my desire to volunteer. I was assigned some small tasks and did my part until about lunchtime.

The convention formally opened and I took my spot in the Cullen section. After the opening remarks the candidate showcase began. I was sent to a different part of the hall, along with a handful of others, to spread Mr. Cullen’s support around. I found Nathan Cullen’s address to the convention to be quite good, and unusual. He spoke without a podium, or notes of any kind. Later media reports would confirm my thoughts, but I am biased anyway.

The showcases were a bit tiring. I felt I got a different perspective of the candidates on the floor from the position of the media and viewers at home. I think delegates may get swept up in the thrill of the crowd. Dozens of screaming supporters tends to change the energy. That being said Peggy Nash’s poor timing and Thomas Mulcair’s rushed delivery was evident – especially when I tried to keep up with his French.

After the first round of balloting was the tribute to Jack Layton. I expected an emotional affair, and I was not wrong. The videos were the most touching aspect, to my mind, and Olivia Chow’s remarks were quite moving, along with the speech by Sarah and Mike Layton. After a brief drink at the Cullen post-convention party I returned to Brampton.

Saturday was the big day. I arrived early and was quickly put to work by the Cullen campaign staff. I was among the greeters to delegates and media coming off an escalator. The supporters gathered to meet Mr. Cullen in the lobby and marched with him into the convention hall with him leading the way chanting. The first ballot was an incredibly exciting moment. As the pundits stated the big questions were 1 – what order would the NDP candidates fall (first, second, third...), and 2 – how much support would Mulcair have? When it was revealed Nash was in fourth, so that Cullen was third (or higher) the section started going crazy. There was an incredible surge of excitement.

I won’t go in-depth into the ballot by ballot action, that’s all readily available. There was a great deal of excitement after first ballot and a lot of discussion broke out. People would come by the headquarters and ask to learn more about Nathan Cullen, or his policies. Helping pull in Ashton and Dewar voters became part of my job. After the second ballot the same thing happened with Nash supporters.

The issues with the voting system were incredibly frustrating. I stood in line for about forty-five minutes. At one point I was interviewed by a CityTV reporter about the issues in voting and I expressed my frustration. I imagine the tag under my name in the broadcast may have read “Disgruntled Voter”.

Regardless, Mr. Cullen was eliminated on the third ballot and we quickly began voting on the fourth, where I cast my ballot for Thomas Mulcair. At the convention a British Columbia MLA, Michelle Mungall - a Brian Topp supporter, bent my ear on making Topp my second choice. Sadly, she didn’t win me over, but it was strange to be shooting the breeze with a BC MLA. The place was crawling with politicians and media. It was really amazing, and I must admit to being star-struck by the presence of so many people I only see on TV.

Conventions generate quite intense emotion, and the feeling of a team. After Cullen was eliminated his supporters returned to his headquarters to watch CBC’s coverage. Not long after voting got underway Cullen gave his interviews, if you have not seen it, I strongly recommend watching. It was a sad moment for many, and I felt deeply disappointed. In those moments you really believe your candidate, and your team can win. There were a lot of tears from the volunteers, and a lot of applause for Nathan Cullen’s remarks.

Not long after Tom Mulcair was declared the winner and the new Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Overall, I am pleased by Mr. Mulcair’s win, and I believe he will serve the party well. He is well positioned to oppose the current Conservative government and, with luck and a lot of hard work, form government in 2015.

I must admit now that there is a certain quiet now that I am not enjoying. My Twitterfeed is no longer bursting with #NDPldr updates, and there is not that excitement of an election. I suppose the next step is for me to figure out how I want to contribute to the party in between now and the next election. Do I want to merely observe the debate and volunteer when the election draws near, or do I want to actively participate in the intervening three years? If I return to Brampton when I finished my Master’s Degree there will be a number of new riding associations, and the NDP will need to build new support systems and executives there, and I think I’ll try to become part of that process.

However, just because the NDP leadership race is over does not mean things are boring. This week the Ontario and federal budgets come out, an Ontario court has made brothels legal and Alberta just called an election! It’s still a good time to be a political junkie and a New Democrat.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Countdown to the NDP Convention

On Friday the New Democratic Party’s Leadership Convention opens in Toronto. As I have mentioned before I will be attending the convention as a delegate. The fascinating thing about Canadian leadership contests is that they are typically very unstable and unpredictable events. My reading of events says that there are three candidates who are likely to win the leadership, but five candidates that have a real possibility. Given that there are only seven candidates that is a shocking statement.

The odds-on favourite to win is Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC). It is arguable that he would have the broadest base of mainstream support, and has the highest name recognition in Canada. Polling information indicates that he would restore the NDP to the place it was at inthe May 2011.

The other candidates that I think have a shot to win, by likelihood, is Peggy Nash (NDP – Parkdale-High Park, ON), Nathan Cullen (NDP - Skeena-Bulkley Valley, BC), Paul Dewar (NDP – Ottawa Centre, ON), and Brian Topp (NDP President).

The blogger at democraticSpace, Greg Morrow,offered the following prediction for how the balloting might go down on Saturday, but it is only an educated guess. This is what he estimates:

Mulcair – 31-33%
Nash – 18-20%
Cullen – 14-16%
Dewar – 13-15%
Topp – 12-14%
Ashton – 3-5%
Singh – 1-3%
Saganash – 0-2%

Mulcair 34-36%
Nash 21-24%
Cullen 16-18%
Dewar 13-15%
Topp 9-11%

Mulcair 37-39%
Nash 27-29%
Cullen 18-20%
Dewar 14-16%

Mulcair 42-44%
Nash 36-38%
Cullen 21-23%

Mulcair 54-56%
Nash 44-46%

This is the likely scenario, but what happens at conventions is often the unlikely and unexpected. The battle between Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae in 2006 at the Liberal Leadership Convention resulted in a Stephane Dion victory.

The real unknown, in mine and others’ estimation, is the candidate I’m backing, Nathan Cullen. Mr. Cullen has seen a dramatic spike in fundraising since January. PunditsGuide broke down the numbers for fundraising and its implication for momentum. But more importantly, I think, Mr. Cullen has effectively presented himself in the media and in the debates which will leave him high in the preferences of NDP members. I can imagine that Mr. Cullen will be the second or third choice for a number of voters who initially back Niki Ashton, Paul Dewar and perhaps others.

Interestingly, according to the party, there are estimates that over 70% of the members will have voted before the convention begins. The cake will be baked. The result will almost surely be set before a single ballot is cast in real-time at the convention. Peter O’Neil of the Vancouver Sun argued that Nathan Cullen is the wildcard in this race, and I am inclined to agree. If Mr. Cullen places third (or higher) on the first ballot I think he may be able to gather enough support to win the nomination, resulting in a total upset. John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail made the point the most starkly – Tom Mulcair will almost definitely win the nomination...maybe. Pundits' wisdom was made to be proven wrong.

Before concluding this piece I think perhaps I should elaborate on why Nathan Cullen is my choice to lead the NDP. I believe that Mr. Cullen has the personality, style and temperament to bring the NDP from Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition into Government. His approach may win over those Liberal, Green and Conservative voters or apathetic citizens who did not participate. His effort to run a positive campaign, rooted in ideas and social media has been quite impressive.

The ideas behind Mr. Cullen’s campaign were what won me over. In this blog I repeatedly talk about the desperate need for democratic reform in Canada, which is something Mr. Cullen has discussed since the very beginning. I believe that when he says he wants to see a change in our democracy he means it, and that he will push for real reform. He says it will be the first piece of legislation when he is elected Prime Minister, and that is what I have been waiting to hear from a leader. Furthermore, Mr. Cullen’s policies on northern development and our energy economy have captured my imagination and convinced me of the urgent need to change course on several key policy fronts.

A few weeks ago I reflected on the census and discussed the shifting westward of our politics. Mr. Cullen is a westerner from British Columbia, and I believe he can speak to their concerns and expand the NDP support in the critical four provinces west of Ontario. It is my opinion that if the NDP form government in 2015 it will be through winning Quebec and substantial seats in the West, coupled with small gains in the Maritimes and Ontario. The NDP must win seats not just in British Columbia, but Alberta and Saskatchewan if it ever hopes to form government. Mr. Cullen may have what it takes to appeal to rural and suburban voters and bring the NDP the necessary support to bring the party to the next step.

Finally, Mr. Cullen’s controversial cooperation plan. I believe the plan has real merit, but I do not imagine it will go anywhere. The Liberal Party is not interested, at the moment, in building that kind of support, even though it basically did a cooperation plan in 2008 with the Green Party in two ridings. However, the cooperation plan may send the correct signals to progressive voters that the NDP is building a broad, substantial coalition. This would be critical to building support in Toronto and the GTA, and tight seats in the West. The optics may be all positive for the NDP and all negative for the Liberals. Not to mention even if the Liberals are unwilling the Greens probably will be to protect their one seat.

I probably won’t cover the convention in real-time simply because I do not have a Smart Phone. Next Tuesday I will hopefully be able to offer some insight into the event and the outcome. See you in Toronto!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Personal Chat with Nathan Cullen

Recently I won the Photos for Change competition held by the Nathan Cullen campaign (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, BC – NDP), along with two others. The purpose of the contest was to take a photo of your community that demonstrated why it is important to work together.

St. Catharines, ON from Brock University.

This is the photo I submitted. The photo is taken from the 10th floor of Schmon Tower at Brock University looking north to St. Catharines. In my description I said that the NDP will need to win ridings like St. Catharines to form a majority government, and that in St. Catharines often a majority of voters select left-wing parties, but the Conservatives hold the riding. After I was selected by the Team Cullen volunteers we arranged the call.

I must admit to being nervous before Mr. Cullen called. I think given my relative greenness in politics I’m still a little starstruck when meeting MPs and MPPs, though I am increasingly learning they are just regular people, for the most part. In addition I had met Mr. Cullen at an event in Welland, Ontario a few weeks ago.

Before calling me up Mr. Cullen and his team must have done a little checking on my involvement with the campaign because he immediately spoke to my involvement on the social media element. On that basis Mr. Cullen seemed quite interested in picking my brain over the role social media has in elections, how can it be used and where I think the leadership contest is at present. Our discussion about social media’s importance was particularly interesting, in my opinion. We both approach the issue from different perspectives – as candidate and a participant. Mr. Cullen told me that the social media numbers has been useful for the campaign in terms of media. The media like numbers, he said, and by being able to demonstrate interest the campaign can build a narrative and a story, and most important, gain attention.

Ironically, I pointed out the more pragmatic aspect of a social media audience. I argued that it could be used as an effective fundraising tool. If everyone one of Mr. Cullen’s 8632 Facebook followers donated $10 it would be a huge surge in fundraising. I argued that with large amounts of small donations, like the Obama 2008 campaign, it would be possible to return to those donors over and over again without exhausting them. Unsurprisingly this seemed to intrigue the leadership candidate.

Despite it being a brief phone call, lasting only 15-20 minutes I felt it highly meaningful. To be thanked by the candidate himself for my contribution to the discussion and the campaign made it feel like I was having a real influence on the outcome. After hanging up the phone I tweeted “It's a very different style of campaign, an accessible and open leader will be important in politics from here on out.” In this digital era people want to feel ownership of, and connection to their candidates. The fact that when I get a thank you call from the Cullen campaign for a donation it comes from a person is quite pleasant. The campaign has also taken on the mantra of “No robocalls!”, so all of their interactions are done by a person on the other end. Frankly after this campaign I’ll be happy to not hear another pre-recorded message for a while. To be able to directly interact with the campaign with social media is important to me. In fact, I was recruited by the campaign after making a positive remark about Mr. Cullen on Twitter during a debate by his dedicated followers.

The role of social media in future elections is unclear, but that’s part of this process. I think Team Cullen is on the right track with a lot of their moves, and more could be developed still. Furthermore, how this would work in a national campaign against rival parties is the real question.

Still, the conversation did not go the way I expected. I thought we would talk more about issues. I wanted to share my thoughts about the Enbridge pipeline and the connections to my own research for my major research paper on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project of the 1970s. Also I wanted to discuss an NDP strategy to appeal to and win the suburbs and rural areas of Canada, but there simply was not time. The fact that time was given at all important, and few people get such an opportunity, so I am not complaining.

I do not know who will win the leadership of the NDP. The preferential ballot could lead to an entirely unforeseen outcome. Hopefully the other campaigns are learning and adapting from this experience to become stronger organizations for the true test in 2015. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Is It Over Yet?

When 2012 started I was quite excited about the Republican primaries to select their presidential candidate to face off against Barack Obama in November. To put it bluntly I have become quite bored with the contest. Perhaps that is my problem, watching American politics as a sport rather than a serious process to select a leader. Is that a fault not also found in the media?

There was something great about the first month or so, from the Iowa Caucuses to the Florida Primary, but I think the Florida Primary put any doubt to bed in any substantial way – Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee when the delegates meet in Tampa, Florida.

Virtually every week my chosen commentators have proclaimed that ‘this week is the most important in the primary process.’ It got to the point that I could tell they were laughing under their breath at their own choice. South Carolina was critical, then Florida was critical, then Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, most recently Michigan was the critical battle, and this week it is Ohio. Romney has won virtually every one of these contests. More importantly he is steadily amassing delegates.

I think the media has done a good job at ginning up the audience that these are all important primaries. My opinion remains that Republican voters, the base itself, is not convinced. A huge number of Republicans are unhappy with their slate of candidates. It makes me happy to be a New Democrat, really. Despite all the hype turnout is down state after state compared to 2008. I also heard on MSNBC that overall ratings for the elections are down.

This could very well be a consequence of only the Republicans having a contested primary. Four years ago Clinton and Obama struggled to win the final support of their party. Still, the dismal Republican field has failed to inspire Republican voters and the broader public, including junkies like me north of the border. I would hope that if Romney wins Ohio tonight the discussion about the GOP nomination dies down. Even if Santorum wins Ohio the race is still over, he has proven he is too conservative to have appeal broadly. I understand that statistically he has not won yet, but really it feels all but a formality. Though maybe tomorrow morning when I turn on the news I will hear how the ‘battle really moves on to Kansas [or perhaps Missouri], there we’ll see if Romney can finally put Santorum away.’

The New York Times has a great website for following the GOP primary, link here