Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Questions of Judgement

This time last week, the NDP was the story with Jack Layton's announcement about his health and decision to temporarily step down. On Mr. Layton's recommendation, Nycole Turmel was selected and confirmed in the role as Interim Leader of the Opposition.

Fast forward to this week and the NDP is again the story. However, this time it is the revelations that Ms. Turmel was a supporter of the Bloc since 2006 and that she only relinquished her Bloc membership to run for the NDP which are the focus of politics watchers.

Cue the duelling talking points of spinners woken from their summer slumbers.

From my perspective, there are two stories here. The first is one of judgement and whether the NDP (and Mr. Layton in particular) failed to properly consider how these revelations would play out. The second story is about how we consider party allegiance and support in a modern democracy, and whether we are too quick to judge.

It's about the NDP's judgement...

By all accounts, Ms. Turmel's previous support for the Bloc was known by Mr. Layton and his leadership team. It was also known that she was a long-time supporter of the NDP.

In many respects, this is understandable as both are traditionally strong supporters of organized labour. Moreover, NDP and Bloc positions in many areas related to social policy and social justice are quite similar.

The principal (and not inconsequential) distinction is on the question of national unity. This is where judgement comes into play.

Having witnessed the past two and half years of Canadian politics where the government was always quick to attack what it saw as a separatist-socialist coalition, one could argue that the NDP hierarchy should have been more sensitive as to how all of this would play out.

This is a very important time for the NDP as they adjust to their new role as Official Opposition. Consistency, staying on message and not letting internal issues become the story are important objectives as they look to develop their brand as the government-in-waiting.

Knowing this, the NDP hierarchy should have taken greater care to insulate themselves from the attacks the party and its interim leader are now facing. Should this persist into the fall and Mr. Layton's return is delayed for however long, the party will have been wounded by something completely avoidable.

Are we judgemental?

The second story is less about the NDP and more about the reaction of the other parties, and the eagerness with which fingers are pointed and judgement is made.

- In every election since 1993, all parties have eagerly sought the votes of Quebecers who in the past voted for the Bloc. In so doing they did not seem concerned about what political allegiances these voters may have had in the past.

- From 2006-2008, the Conservatives expended great effort and public money on currying favour with a portion of the Quebec electorate which was more nationalist in nature. Their goal was to try re-build the Mulroney-era coalition of the West and soft-nationalists in Quebec. In so doing, they were not particularly concerned with past allegiances.

- Many Conservatives were supportive of the ADQ, given its more conservative economic agenda - despite the fact that the ADQ was lead by a member of the "Oui" campaign in the 1995 referendum.

- The Liberals welcomed back a former BQ member (Jean Lapierre) and appointed him to Cabinet (Transport), while Liza Frulla (former Minister of Canadian Heritage) was open about voting yes in the 1980 referendum.

The simple fact is that in Quebec politics, for a variety of reasons, you are going to have a sizeable number of people who have supported both the federalist and separatist parties - often for reasons which have little or nothing to do with federalism or separatism.

If this reality does not make one's vote less desirable, it should not let one's candidacy or leadership be attacked in the manner it has been.


The NDP should have foreseen this week's circus and either avoided it or got out ahead of it. That they did not shows a lapse in judgement which one hopes does not set them off in September on the wrong foot - we need a strong Official Opposition.

However, to say that they should have foreseen the reaction should not validate that reaction. There is an element of hypocrisy and a tendency to be judgemental in the talking points and talking heads we have seen today.

As our society changes, our politics and views about parties will change. I suspect that there will be more movement and coalescing around issues, and less iron-clad party support in the future. Are we ready for it?

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