Tuesday, August 3, 2010

GPC Deputy Leader Georges Laraque: A Tactical Victory; A Strategic Opportunity Lost

Before I get into the meat of this blog, let me just say that I've followed Georges Laraque's career on the ice for some time. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for those who play a physical game, and who aren't afraid to mix it up. Laraque was one of those rare talents: an enforcer and a grinder who could put the puck in the net every now and then, especially at critical times. I've been a big fan of the Edmonton Oilers for some time (since being drafted to the “Edmonton Oilers” for grade 5 floor hockey, and getting my dad to go out and buy me a “Wayne Gretzky” sweater to wear); they've been my team to cheer for in the West, even though I am a dyed in the wool Leafs fan. I've even been known to celebrate grinders like Laraque through my purchase of a #10 Gary Valk jersey for a good friend of mine, and a #16 Leaf jersey (but not the #16 most Leaf fans would associate with the role of grinder; no, we're not talking about Darcy Tucker here, we're talking about Lonny Bohonos).

When Laraque joined our Party last year, I have to admit that I was more than a little surprised, but very happy. Shortly after, I saw him appear with Rick Mercer, although I think that episode might have been taped before he joined the Party. I didn't realize that Laraque was involved with the sorts of issues which I've now come to understand he's involved with: animal welfare, and helping the rebuilding efforts in Haiti. As a result of his civic pride and efforts to want to change the world, my admiration for the man has only increased. Today, it's truly at an all-time high (and I can say that even though I've now seen the cheeky road-hockey commercial...what can I say? I've been known to enjoy a Jager Bomb in my time, so I'm not opposed to mixing my booze with my energy drinks. Not sure what all the hubbub was about...or did I, a married man, miss something there?)

OK, so with that out of the way, it's time to do a little assessment of Laraque's recent appointment to the position of Deputy Leader of the Green Party, which was announced on Saturday by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in Vancouver. Our Party's other Deputy Leader, Adriane Carr, was also on hand for the announcement. Our Party held a press scrum and issued a press release, which is available on the Party's website. So far, so good.

Our Party's Constitution and By-laws indicate that the Leader is allowed to appoint up to two Deputy Leaders. The role of Deputy Leader is relatively undefined (at my place of work, we'd provide the following job description: “Other Duties As Assigned”). The position of Deputy Leader became available about two months ago with the sudden departure of our former Deputy Leader, Jacques Rivard, who left our Party to take on a position with the Bloc Quebecois.

Anyway, back to Vancouver on Saturday. The press must have asked Mr. Laraque and other Greens present at the press conference a few questions about Laraque's future role with the Party as our New Deputy Leader. Referring to our own media release, I note that the release itself doesn't say anything at all about what we can expect out of Laraque as our new Deputy. So from here on in, I'll be relying on what I've read reported in the media, and by some in the blogosphere, which actually doesn't amount to a whole lot. But what it does amount to is a little telling.

First, Laraque seems destined to try to build the Green Party brand in Quebec, his home province. Some have started to refer to him as our “Quebec Deputy”, and there's some merit to this, as the two previous Deputies to resign (Rivard and Claude Genest) were also both from Quebec. Interestingly, both Rivard and Genest were not career politicians: they came to the Green Party from the world of journalism. So there's a bit of a trend now for the Party to be appointing so-called “media stars” to lead the effort in building the Green Party's brand in Quebec. More on that in a little bit.

The second thing which was reported from the press conference in Vancouver is, for me, a little more troubling. Apparently when asked about whether Laraque would be throwing his hat in the ring to run in the next federal election, Laraque indicated that he would not be. Hmmm...there wasn't any mention of this in the Party's press release. OK, so maybe Laraque doesn't feel like he's read to run as a candidate. Seems reasonable, maybe, given that he only just joined the Party about 6 months ago.

On Sunday, the Green Party received a lot of press from all sorts of media. Elizabeth May and Georges Laraque were mentioned in places where the Green Party doesn't typically receive any press coverage at all, such as on TSN (the Sports Network), on hockey websites, etc. Of course, the major media all gave some pretty positive coverage too, although some mentioned that Laraque wouldn't be running as a candidate, and some referred to that unfortunate road hockey commercial. In general, though, the coverage was pretty good, I have to say.

Later on Sunday, the blogosphere came alive with news that Laraque was named Deputy. Generally, stories in the blogosphere seemed fairly mixed (which I believe was a positive thing, given that the political blogosphere is dominated by non-Green bloggers). Sure, some were very critical, but other bloggers, including some Liberals and Conservatives, provided mixed reviews, grudgingly acknowledging that the Greens had captured a bit of a Canadian celeb who isn't carrying much in the way of personal baggage. That can only be a good thing for any political party.

Some of the real criticism, though, focused on Laraque's role with the Party, asking questions about why the Greens were appointing a novice to be “second in command”, and presuming that should Elizabeth May be killed in a train crash, he would be sworn in as Leader. Well, clearly, not everyone understands the power structure of our Party. Keep in mind, our Deputy Leaders perform “Other Duties as Assigned”; they don't even get to vote on Federal Council (although they are invited to attend the meetings, and I think they can even listen in on the in-camera stuff). Basically, our Deputy Leaders are there to raise our Party's profile, and to perform some of the high-level work needed to build the Party.

Which brings me to my own concerns regarding Laraque's appointment. It's true that Laraque has little experiencing with Party organizing (and apparently little experience with anything much to do with political parties), yet here he is now, our new Champion for the Quebec cause. Let's look at what poor Georges has, in fact, inherited.

It's no secret that our Party is not doing well in Quebec, although we continue to poll provincially around our national figures. We've never had strong organizations in Quebec; I understand that EDA's are few and far between on the ground. Our last two Quebec Champions accomplished little with regards to building our profile in Quebec. Perhaps this also had to do with their lack of expertise with political parties and organizing, as they both came to our Party from the media.

In contrast, our other Deputy Leader, Adriane Carr, is one of the Party's biggest political animals, who knows a thing or two about organizing. I'm a huge fan of Carr. She has given so incredibly much of herself to this Party it's not even funny. Now, I'm not suggesting that all of our Deputy Leaders need to be like Carr, or have the skill set that she does, but I think that, given the political importance of the position of Deputy within our Party, and the political exposure that someone in this position is likely to receive, that really we need to have people in these positions that understand the political realm. If we don't, not only are we setting the deputies up for failure, but we're doing the Party a bit of a disservice.

Look, media will tend to focus on a Party's “stars” rather than the rest of the nobody's who operate largely anonymously behind the scenes. In other Parties, these “stars” are typically high-profile MP's. Given that we don't have any MP's, in the Green Party, our “stars” are largely the Leader and the Deputy, and maybe one or two candidates who have performed really well for the Party (and if they were still around, maybe we'd have a few more stars). So, although the position of Deputy is to perform “Other Duties as Assigned”, the fact is that the media is going to expect our Deputies to be cut from a little more refined cloth than the average candidate.

So, with the idea that our Deputies are going to be the media darlings of the Party, speaking for the Party at events where the Leader can't attend, gaining access to the media where a local candidate wouldn't have much of a chance, what then shall we make of Georges Laraque, a man with no political experience, charged with being our third Quebec Champion of the Party in the past 2 years? Hey, I like Georges, and I think that he's going to surprise many of his (and our Party's) critics. But...to foresake the opportunity and media advantage given to our Deputy Leaders and choose NOT TO RUN AS A CANDIDATE? C'mon, that's as (to borrow a phrase from a greater pundit than I) dumb as a bag of hammers.

Yes, I realize that if Laraque is going to be spending the majority of his time trying to build our brand in Quebec, maybe he will prove to be too busy to run as a candidate in a federal election. Uhm...wait a second. Wouldn't building our presence in Quebec benefit from having someone with Georges Laraque's media profile actually contest a riding in an election? Of course it would. So the fact that Laraque has ruled out running as a candidate for the Party in the next election seems to me to be an incredibly poor decision on his part, and a waste of an opportunity for the Party. Georges Laraque needs to run as a candidate, period. I don't care whether it's in Quebec or elsewhere (and by “elsewhere” clearly I mean in Edmonton, where Laraque lived for a number of years and has a Tie Domi-like profile).

So, what really has the Green Party accomplished by announcing Laraque as Deputy Leader, on a long weekend in August? Well, I guess the announcement really did dominate the media this past weekend, given that the census story is getting a bit old, and there weren't any new oil spills. Sure, it couldn't compete with Chelsea Clinton's wedding, but we have to acknowledge that there are degrees of celebrity Anyway, the point is that the August long weekend is like Death Valley for media coverage: it's the ultimate low-point of the year. Not many are paying attention. If you've got a high-profile media announcement to make, you'd either be foolish to do it on the Saturday of the August long weekend, or...you have other reasons for doing it. Say what you want about our Party, but those in charge aren't foolish.

Although we received pretty good press from the Laraque announcement on the August long weekend, clearly there were a few other things driving this announcement. And they all have to do with internal Green Party politics. First of all, we have our Biennial General Meeting coming up later this month in Toronto (August 20-22). With the recent departure of Jacques Rivard, the former Quebec Deputy, I'm sure that it made sense to those in positions of power that that talk of the convention not be about losing our high-profile Deputy Rivard to the rival Bloc (and about him coming out of the closet as being a long-time separatist). Much better to be talking about the new, media-friendly Deputy Laraque, just appointed by Party Leader Elizabeth May, who is being decisive and exercising one of her (few) Leadership perogatives. Now, truly, that's a much better story for the Party. Despite the fact that Laraque doesn't have any experience and has decided that he's not going to represent the Party in the next federal election.

Another interesting point: in the last few weeks, the Green Party has been receiving more press from the mainstream media, and has been the focus of a little more coverage in the blogosphere than we're used to getting. Unfortunately, this press has been focused on our own internal strife, and efforts underway by some in our Party to dump our current Leader (and in a few cases, our Leader's efforts to undermine our Constitution). In short, this press coverage has been a little problematic. Time to change the channel on the negative press before the BGM maybe? A little announcement with Laraque and May holding hands would certainly do that. And it has.

Keep in mind that, if you're reading my blog and you're a Member of the Green Party, chances are that you're a little more engaged with what's going on than the average Party member (I'm a fairly obscure blogger after all, and I've a tendency to write long and rambling blogs that just turn people off). The average member, though, probably heard about Georges Laraque, and may have previously heard about the Green Party being at a crossroads and efforts to dump Elizabeth May as Leader. So, for most of our Membership, the news about Laraque is, no doubt, a refreshing story. And one which shows May front and centre, taking charge, which is what a Leader is supposed to be doing.

Now look...none of this is to suggest that Georges Laraque isn't going to perform well as our Deputy Leader. Again, I think he's going to surprise some of his critics. Instead, I'm taking a bit of an issue with his appointment for other reasons, given that he has said that he's not going to run as a candidate for the Party. I think that's a terrible mistake, and a wasted opportunity for the Party. Not only do I think that Georges Laraque would make a good candidate for the Party, I believe that his being a candidate will go a long way to building the Party's profile where ever he should choose to run.

Clearly, though, Laraque's appointment as Deputy Leader was about Georges Laraque: it was about Elizabeth May. She needed the change the channel on a couple of downer stories before the BGM. And she's done so quite nicely. However, Laraque's appointment as Deputy will not mollify the growing number of Greens who are paying attention to what's going on in this Party.
Rather than another media head, what we need as a Deputy is someone who knows a thing or two about organizing, especially if the goal is to build our brand in the wasteland of Quebec. Sure, Laraque has a bit of a profile, and that can't hurt at all. But given the limited resources he's going to be offered by the Party, he's quickly going to find that he's largely going to be on his own. I'm just afraid that we're setting Laraque up for failure and disillusionment, which is hardly the sort of place I want one of my hockey heroes to find himself in.

Ultimately, this all goes back to Elizabeth May. I understand why she did this, and one level I'm not opposed (because I'm such a Georges Laraque fan). But I think that many Greens are going to continue to question her logic here. Does the Party really need, at this point in our history, another media-friendly persona with no political experience, and who won't be using any of his media savvy to promote himself as a candidate? Wouldn't it have been better to find someone who has a bit of a technocratic side and who actually has some skills to start building a provincial profile for themselves and the Party in Quebec?

Greens, we've been looking for the “quick fix” which media exposure brings our Party for the past number of years. So far, it's been working to an extent, although we continue to lack clasping the brass ring of electing anyone to parliament. Yes, our membership numbers have increased (although they are down somewhat now), and our vote-share in 2008 was our best showing yet. It's true that positive media is going to help to grow this Party.

But when we continue to lack any depth on the ground, our chances for actually electing anyone is quite slim. And that's why what resources we have as a Party need to be focused right now on the ridings where media exposure and experience on the ground come together. Right now, that's arguably only a few places: Saanich-Gulf Islands, where Elizabeth May is running; Guelph, where municipal councillor Bob Bell is the nominated candidate; Vancouver Centre, where Deputy Leader Adriane Carr will be running again; and Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, where we'll have a new candidate in place prior to the BGM (and another good news story for our Party). I'll even throw in Barrie, because I like Erich Jacoby-Hawkins continuing commitment to the candidacy, and I love reading his editorials in the Barrie Examiner.

Where ever Georges Laraque decides to run could be another such riding, given his profile (especially if he chose an urban Alberta riding where Greens could come together more easily to support him).

Ultimately, though, being media-friendly or having a Big Name is only going to get us so far. To truly be successful, our Party needs to focus a lot more of its energy on building local capacity. We have to acknowledge that our failure to do so over the past half decade has put us behind, and that real electoral success is likely going to take another 10 years or so, even if we do elect one or two Greens to parliament the next time around.

Look, we just can't continue to rely on the media to do our work for us. We need to get organized. All of the Georges Laraques and Elizabeth Mays out there are only going to take us so far. Without identified voters who are willing to elect us, fogettabouddit.

I've been a supporter of the “All-the-eggs-in-one-basket” strategy for the past several years, because I believe that we really need to elect someone in the next election or it could be game over for our Party. Now, I'm fearing that it might be game over for the party before the next electoral writ is even dropped. Those disenchanted with the current leadership at least now have an identified individual in Sylvie Lemiuex to rally around, rather than just dissonant voices in the blogosphere. There is too much dissension amongst us, and we are starting to look like we are at risk of fracturing. We've lost too many good people, and we seem to be doing a fair bit of floundering around, looking for a quick fix. Hopefully, that quick fix will prove to be Elizabeth May.

But if May keeps achieving tactical victories, while making strategic mistakes, it might be all over for the Greens before May gets that last chance to prove herself at the polls.

1 comment:

Chris KN said...

The only benefit I can see to your party of not having him run in the next election is if he goes on a cross-Canada tour to drum up support and interest in ridings where Elizabeth May won't be making it herself.

If he stays in Quebec, that opportunity would be lost. He would probably make waves in places like Sudbury, for instance, and could probably help you guys raise some cash for the election.

So, in a sense, if you have Carr doing the nuts and bolts work and Laraque going to ridings to raise money, that might be a winning formula.

Based on his interview with the National Post,though, it's pretty clear that, not only does he not have any experience with politics, he clearly doesn't even know what the Green Party's platform is. Not even the foggiest idea. So, he has a long way to go if he wants to run for office, but not such a long way if he wants to attend photo-ops and fundraisers.