Thursday, May 18, 2017

On Leadership and Definitions

SOURCE: CBC News: Ryan Meili Seeks NDP Leadership for 3rd Time

By this point in time, most of you have likely heard the news that Ryan Meili has announced his intention to seek the leadership of the Saskatchewan NDP for the third time. Meili, who has had two strong second place finishes in prior leadership contests, is thus far the only announced candidate in the leadership contest; and arguably, regardless of who may come next, likely considered to be the frontrunner.

With Ryan thus far being the only announced candidate, I suppose we'll be spending the rest of this post looking at some things that I hope Ryan and his team have already begun to work on. After all, there's more at stake here than just the NDP Leadership.

I'd like to preface this post, before we launch into the main arguments and discussion, that this post may come across perhaps as prodding on my end. It may very well be, but hopefully, it's a good kind of prodding that will help ensure that the party comes out stronger on the other side of this leadership contest.

Let's start with the obvious point: The Sask Party is very much prepared for the Meili-led NDP. Brad Wall has, on several occasions, referred to Meili (since his election in Saskatoon-Meewasin) as "the future leader of the NDP" or some variation thereof; so we need to ask ourselves what exactly that means for the first few days of a Meili led NDP.

One of the things that has ham-stringed the last few provincial NDP leaders was a failure to define themselves out of the gate; by leaving such an opening, Wall and the Sask Party were able to define the new leaders and set the tone and tenor of their tenure. And regardless of what developments came later, both Lingenfelter and Broten suffered from these initial perceptions perpetuated by the Sask Party and Wall and his front bench.

Since his first run against Dwain Lingenfelter, Ryan Meili has likely been a "person of interest" for Saskatchewan Party partisans. They have had years to craft what messaging they can, or would, use in the event Ryan became party leader. As such, it's very likely that from the first second after a Meili win, the Sask Party would be ready to launch every salvo they have stored from those years to do what they did to Lingenfelter and Broten so well: Define him before he defines himself.

As such, Meili and his team need to be ready for this. Wall's chattering of acknowledging Meili as the front-runner in the NDP race more or less shows that they will be ready from day one to start their campaign against him. With that in mind, Team Meili needs to ensure that they're laying groundwork not just to win the NDP Leadership, but also getting ready from Day One to ensure that they are the ones who define Ryan to Saskatchewan voters.

There will be precious little time after a Meili win to achieve this, so I do certainly hope that it is something that is being discussed within his organizational structure.

That's not to say that this same kind of tactic would not be employed against a 'dark horse' candidate who pulls out a surprise win over Meili; as the Sask Party is likely to continue on this path as it's worked well at kneecapping two previous leaders. But for Meili, having been in the public eye longer, the Sask Party will certainly be more ready for him.

We certainly saw a taste of this during the Meewasin by-election, wherein the Sask Party ran ads tying Ryan to Trudeau's Carbon Tax. While it seems like that argument landed with a thud, given Ryan's victory in Meewasin, it's likely just the tip of the iceberg on potential "definition" campaigns they could run.

Again, I point all of this out in the hopes of acknowledging that should Ryan end up winning the leadership next May, he and his team must be ready for this. The campaign to come isn't just about securing the NDP Leadership, but also about securing Ryan's public image to ensure that it is defined by him and his actions, and not by political tactics of the Sask Party.

Which brings us to the next point, the need for this leadership race to be a conversation and not a coronation.

Ryan's entry into the race is likely to scare off some of the 'smaller fish' candidates who were perhaps entertaining a leadership run. The problem here, in my opinion, is that the party is in such a place at the moment that a singular leadership race poses many problems.

While the party could maintain that it's the membership uniting behind Ryan, and seeing his vision as the best for the province; we come back to opposition definition. If Ryan is the only candidate, the Sask Party will undoubtedly use that as an attack in several ways. From arguing that the party is in such dire straights it could only find one person wanting to lead it to painting the party as being completely taken over by so-and-so wing of the party.

Again, definition is important; and a healthy leadership competition is a part of that definition. As such, it's important to ensure that many voices are active and engaged during the leadership race. Anything else than that is ceding ground to the Sask Party attack ad machine; and that's a dangerous ground to cede.

Which brings me to the next point: Regardless of whether it's Ryan, or someone else, the next leader has to be ready to deal with two realities.

The first reality is the one where the NDP is elected in 2020, and the leader is able to begin to implement the policies and vision that they were elected on.

The second reality is the one where the NDP is elected in 2020, and we find ourselves in a repeat of the early 1990s: The cupboards barer than the previous government admitted to, and the newly elected government stymied into the role of a caretaker rather than a visionary.

As much as it may be pessimistic, we need to have an open and frank discussion of what happens in 2020 if the party finds itself in power and the financial burden of the province in a much darker hole than Wall and his outgoing cabinet revealed. Call it the difference between political idealism and practical realism; we need to have a platform that reflects lofty goals, but we also need to have a dose of realism on what the party, and the leader, will do if we find Saskatchewan in more dire straights than we think.

The Sask Party has made a living off of citing all the "Closures" and "deferred building" under the NDP of the 1990s; ignoring the reasons why that all occurred...And we need to ensure that any future leaders of the NDP are not caught in the same trap again.

It's not fun to perhaps have to consider what happens if you're elected and have to keep the province's head above water, rather than enacting your pet policies; but again, if we want to avoid opposition definition years down the line, we need to be prepared for both scenarios.

And again, hopefully Ryan and his team (and all potential leadership candidates and their teams), have reflected on this possibility and are able to address what the party and the province would look like in this scenario with them in control. Otherwise, we are likely to see the same arguments Wall uses today return in ten to fifteen year's time as the new reason to shun the NDP.

Effectively, as much as this leadership race will be about laying out a new vision for the party and the province, it must also be a race to acknowledge difficult truths and possibilities of what the next government might have to deal with. And I hope that that is something that has been deeply pondered by every candidate considering running.

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