Friday, November 2, 2012

Editorial Content: Please, Have a Seat.

 *Editorial Note: During this post, I will make some arguments that do not reflect my own personal view. In my attempt to explain my line of thought, I approached the issue as I would if I were a SK Party strategist. As such, I have crafted some arguments I could see the SK Party using in a general election. The validity of these arguments is quite questionable, but I can see them using these exact lines.

This will be the first, in what will be a bit of normalcy on the blog, of pure editorial reflection with regards to the Saskatchewan NDP Leadership race. I've thought a bit about the issue for awhile, and I think the best place to start is with a question that was posed during Ryan Meili's telephone town hall: How important is it for the next leader to have a seat in the legislature?

There's a number of ways to look at that question. Firstly, we can ask how important is it that they already have a seat? Secondly, we can ask how important is it for them to call for a by-election and get a seat? Finally, we can ask in plain generalities how important it is for them to have a seat prior to the next election.

Those will essentially be the three questions we will be examining in this post. Now, as we're all aware, we have four leadership candidates; two of whom have seats in the Legislature (Cam Broten & Trent Wotherspoon) and two of whom do not (Ryan Meili & Erin Weir). As such, there is some validity in discussing this seriously, as there is a possibility that the next leader will not be a current Member of the Legislature.

This is not exactly a unique situation. Ryan's camp has been fond of reminding us that Jack Layton was not a sitting Member of Parliament when first elected to lead the NDP. He's even gone a bit further, highlighting that when Grant Devine was PC Leader and lost out in a by-election it was a boon for his party. And even in the last Saskatchewan NDP leadership race, Dwain Lingenfelter was not a sitting Member of the Legislature when he won the leadership. (Come to think of it, Deb Higgins was the only sitting member in that race, if memory serves.)

The fact is that history supports the idea that a leader doesn't have to come from someone who is currently in caucus. So, historically, there shouldn't be a problem with electing someone who doesn't have a seat in the Legislature.

But once we leave the 'can it happen' aside, we need to look at the fundamental question of 'should it happen' and the consequences associated with it. So, let's look at the first question: How important is it that they already have a seat?

The answer here is mildly important. As pointed out, leaders have been leaders while sitting outside of an elected body, so there is certainly a strong historical case. As such, whether or not someone is currently sitting in the Legislature might not be the best factor to base support on. However, there is a major caveat here that needs to be addressed with the second question.

If the second question is how important is it for them to run in a by-election for a seat, the answer is incredibly important.

Both Ryan and Erin have hinted that they would be comfortably sitting outside of the legislature and rebuilding the party on the grassroots level until the next election. As such, I think we can assume that if they won the leadership, they wouldn't ask any of the current 9 caucus members to step aside. And while there is rebuilding to be done within the party, and it is a task a leader can do outside the legislature, one has to wonder whether it is wise to keep a leader out of the actual debate for a period of almost three years.

And that brings us to the third question: How important is it for them to have a seat prior to the next election?

Again, the answer here is incredibly important. While grassroots building does have a positive effect on the party, it's also a less 'glamorous' job than serving as Leader of the Opposition; by which I mean that it tends to be more low-key and usually generates less media coverage. In a province where we have a somewhat hostile media, and a media loving Premier, this is an approach that leaves me with some major concerns.

Any leader who spends his first three years outside of the legislature is going to face some tough questions. Firstly, the fact that both non-sitting members have never served as members in the past is going to throw questions of experience to the forefront. I imagine serving as an MLA, like any new job, has a steep learning curve. And knowing the functioning of the SK Party mind, which is an uncanny gift I have for conservatives, they will frame the next electoral choice between experienced governance and political novices.

And for people who don't pay attention to the grassroots building, that as mentioned is harder to get coverage of, it is going to sound like a fair argument. 

I would point out that all Premiers of Saskatchewan have had some political experience, either provincially or Federally, prior to their election as leader and eventual rise to Premier.As such, I think there is a case to be made for the next leader to sit in the legislature prior to the next general election. If it comes down simply to experience, even having just a few years of sitting in the legislature is better than none when it comes to forming an argument to form government (which is what all elections are, essentially.)

Secondly, the biggest hurdle to a resurgent NDP is quite literally a Wall. Brad Wall is very good at personality politics, that cannot be denied, and every day that he sits in the Legislature unchallenged is another day of free publicity for him and a stronger case that he should stay in the Premier's chair.

Part of the job of the Leader of the Opposition is to present a viable alternative to the current government. This is partially achieved by building in the grassroots, but it is also done by showing in the Legislature that you're ready to lead. This means challenging Wall, and his government's decisions, inside the legislature. This means standing up in Question Period and challenging the government's record.

Furthermore, without the leader in the legislature (again, using my conservie-sight), the SK Party will run with the absence when they approach voters. Yes, our leader may have been busy meeting members and building the party's grassroots, but ultimately they'll play it up as two things: Firstly, cowardice to face a by-election. Finally, a lack of seriousness about the job.

Allow me to expand on those.

It's no doubt that after the last general election, the NDP has a lot of work to do. In fact, looking at our caucus, there's only a handful of 'safe NDP' seats in the province at the moment (and even then, you have to wonder who was elected because they were a NDP member and who was elected based on their own personalities), so one must wonder whether a 'safe seat' exists at all.

Furthermore, any by-election is going to be a battle. Regardless of the SK Party's odds, they will spend and they will fight to keep the leader out of the legislature. Whether or not they succeed, well, that's any one's guess. But knowing this, and knowing that they would fight tooth-and-nail, allows them to go to voters and say that the new leader was too afraid of a loss in a by-election to face voters.

It may not be true, but the truth has never stood in the way of SK Party messaging before...

Secondly, that brings us to the lack of seriousness route. This will be compounded with any message about lack of experience. It will basically be an argument that because they're a first time MLA, they have a lot to learn about being an MLA before they become Premier. Furthermore, they could have started their learning process by running in a by-election, but they didn't. And the fact that they didn't, shows that they are lacking the seriousness about governance to run the province.

It's a flimsy argument, but it's one we can expect from them.

So, let's put it all together and come to a conclusion.

Ultimately, what I think we can take away from this, is that in the short-term it is not important for the next leader to have a seat in the Legislature. However, this is countered by the fact that I think it is immensely dangerous for the next leader to spend his entire term outside of the legislature. Yes, it is true there is work to be done outside of the legislature; but for the reasons above, there is also A LOT of work to be done in the legislature to counter some of the tactics the SK Party would use in a general election against a leader who hasn't been tempered in the legislature.

As such, I think that in the long run, it becomes important for any of the candidates who don't sit in the legislature to seek a seat within at least a year should they be elected leader. Granted, there are problems with forcing a by-election (namely the possibility of losing it), but it would at least take away a lot of fuel from the SK Party attack machine come the next general election.

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