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Monday, February 25, 2013 

"Saskatchewan NDP Leadership - Part 3 - Taking Stock" - Guest Post By Dan Tan

Saskatchewan NDP Leadership - Part 3 - Taking Stock

Before reading, see Part 1 & Part 2

There are no "losers" here. Those not familiar with the NDP or its values will interpret that as some annoying & misguided insistence on political correctness. In fact, it is merely a utilitarian observation.

Our opponents leadership contests are correctly described as "exciting" & "dramatic". This is to be expected, when a party's declared values consist of nothing but broad platitudes in service of the obvious or inconsequential (ie. the rejection of "discrimination" or the promotion of an undefined form of "liberty"). The result is nothing short of a "Monster Truck Jam", where diametrically opposed ideologies & special-interests collide. The winner takes all, while the loser submits or disappears altogether.

Clearly, NDP leadership contests lack such theatrics & blood-letting. This is a result of the design of the party, which forces candidates & members to agree upon relatively clear economic values. Of course, such adherence to values must be enforced by a vigilant membership. Recently, the membership have done their work...and as a result, there are no dramatic policy divergences. Instead, candidates distinguish themselves through differing areas of emphasis & differing manners of presentation. Essentially, they offer differing marketting approaches.

The Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidates should be credited for presenting unique marketing approaches. Though these approaches carried much risk, in the current context.

Erin Weir*  entered the contest as a wildcard. In any other context, his lack of legislative/leadership experience would have disqualified him from serious contention. But Saskatchewan's economic context (previously described) increased the relevancy of Weir's background as an economist & media personality. True to his skill-set, he kept platitudes & ideology to a minimum. In a matter-of-fact manner, he unapologetically delivered a strong economic message - and most importantly, dared the other candidates to do the same. Surprisingly, it also turned out that Weir was the primary source of humour during these often dire & weighty debates. Alas, this was not enough - because to leap-frog the other established candidates - Weir had to expose his rivals as incompetent on the matter of his bread & butter: economics. He did not accomplish this, and instead, found himself cornered - as rivals painted him as an insensitive bully of small business. Here, it seems his background failed him. While he responded effectively on the basis of policy (explaining the dire implications of his rival's critique)…he left the political wound untreated, allowing negative impressions to fester in the popular imagination. The political solution required Weir to both deflect AND re-assert himself as a champion of the offended group (in this case, small business). Such an over-sight hints at a momentary lack of political acumen. He may well develop such an acumen in time...but certainly not "in time" for the requirements of immediate leadership. *(Erin Weir has now withdrawn from the race).

Cam Broten, IMO, was the best "performer" in the debates. He was comfortable and folksy in his manner. Given the precedents set by George Bush Jr. & Joe Biden, one would expect such "charms" to result in a steady stream of gaffes & feigned ignorance. Proving Canada is truly another nation, Broten carried himself with the utmost sincerity & intelligence. Another interesting aspect of his campaign was the occasional resort to "the killer instinct". Rather than allow his rivals their policy or presentation over-sights, Broten exploited those weaknesses to devastating effect. By doing this unseemly work of generalizing & re-framing...he gave some of the more "innocent" candidates a small taste of what the government has in store. Unfortunately, this killer-instinct did not seem to be effectively applied towards the NDP's true rivals: Brad Wall & his Sask. Party. Such a clever application would have distinguished Broten from the rest of the field..especially his superior competitor in the visceral-appeal-game, Trent Wotherspoon. After all, the next NDP leader will have to contend with rivals who will take credit for every positive aspect of people's lives...while deflecting the negative onto the NDP. So as it stands, Broten may well personally succeed on the "barbeque circuit", but fail to grow the NDP politically.

Ryan Meili is an inspiration to the engaged. There is a hint of the Biblical in his appeal. He manages to convey himself as both meek & wise. He is able to take technical policy and re-purpose it into something philosophical & consequential. Most importantly, he speaks to the deep fears & concerns of the membership. Whether it is their concern about a disconnect with voters, or a resentment of the internal structure...Meili offers clear (though sometimes complicated) reassurance. This all results from the fact that he is a genuinely sensitive man. If he wishes to serve and guide the flock, then the NDP should proudly put him to such a task. The problem is, the NDP cannot count the wider voting public as "engaged" members of "the flock". Incited by the propaganda machine of the Sask. Party, the mass of casual & uninformed voters could easily be "programmed" into perceiving Meili as a metropolitan, ivory-tower, dilettante. His meekness & sensitivity would be interpreted as weakness & indecision. His quiet and philosophical nature would be twisted into appearing odd & cult-like. The innovative & wide-ranging nature of his policies would be described as dangerous & risky social experimentation. Sadly, I believe the Sask. Party would succeed in such an endeavour. Meili has displayed little ability to defend himself from such ruthless political attacks (appeals to our better nature is not enough, as the recent federal Liberal leaders proved). The NDP cannot afford to direct precious resources towards the defense of such a vulnerable leader.

The ideal outcome for the Saskatchewan NDP would be a synthesis of these various approaches. And that is an additional, important, reason to select Trent Wotherspoon as leader. Despite the obvious risk to his own image & ego, Wotherspoon unreservedly complimented - and even adopted - the innovations of his rivals. In doing such a thing, he was not being opportunistic or feigning agreement. It is clear to me that Wotherspoon is humble enough to recognize his own deficiencies, and wise enough to accept the valuable input of others.

The result of such leadership will be the promotion of a safe & confident process of policy formation. The province's brightest social-democrat innovators will focus on the technical refinement of policy...knowing that Trent Wotherspoon is capable of making the "sell". With any other leader, such popular innovation would suffer under the uncertainty of a leader's patience - or - his ability to "sell" and resist the manipulative & ruthless attacks of the Sask. Party.

The result of Trent Wotherspoon's leadership will be social-democratic innovation & the NDP's growth in Saskatchewan.

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