Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Brian Topp Reveals How NDP Plays Cynical Partisan Games with Environmental Issues

I have been trying to get through B.C. NDP campaign manager and former federal leadership challenger Brian Topp’s August 21, 2013 “Campaign Post Mortem” (Topp’s own name for this document) of the NDP’s performance in the recent provincial election. I have struggled with this incredibly cynical document, written by Topp in an effort to identify what, exactly, went wrong with the NDP’s campaign, which saw Leader Adrian Dix’s party plummet from what appeared to be a 20-point pre-election lead to a majority Liberal government on election night.

Topp has a reputation of being a seasoned campaigner, so his post-mortem must make interesting reading for those in old-line parties who are focused on things like the “air war” and focus grouping political messages. Certainly, Canada’s puditocracy has been enlivened by the public release of this document. But I’m clearly not cut from the same cloth, because I just can’t seem to get past the screaming cynicism of the NDP’s (failed) electoral strategy, which appears to have reduced matters of good public policies to mere questions related to “how is this going to play itself with the media and with voters?”

OK, I get it: politics is a bloodsport – at least that’s what the old-line parties would have us believe. The NDP, based on Topp’s analysis, certainly seems ready to sacrifice their public policy positions (both good and bad) at the altar of public opinion on a moment’s notice.

Win at all Cost Attitude

Take the NDP’s incredible reversal on the Kinder-Morgan pipeline as an example. Topp writes that as late as April 11th, Dix was telling the media that the NDP would wait for more information to become publicly available before taking a position on Kinder-Morgan. This approach was changed overnight (literally, according to Topp) so that Dix could announce on Earth Day (April 22nd – just 11 days later) that despite everything he had said about Kinder-Morgan before, and without the benefit of any new information, the NDP would no longer be supporting the pipeline.

Topp writes that this policy reversal was far from altruistic – it was made instead as a blatant attempt to woo the “environmental movement” on the “green question” (see Page 28). If you read what Topp writes about Kinder-Morgan, it’s clear that Dix opposed the pipeline not because he thought it was the right thing to do, but instead because NDP backroom strategists thought that there would be more votes in it.

In fact, Topp expounds that the environmental movement did serious damage to the NDP in the 2009 election, when the BC NDP vehemently opposed the Liberal government’s carbon tax. Topp writes that it was a strategy of the BC NDP in 2013 to “avoid confrontation with the environmental movement, and perhaps to attract the support of earlier critics” (page 27).

From what Topp has to say, it appears that the BC NDP’s entire platform was nothing more than a risk-management exercise (“so we risked a much more pro-environment platform than had been the case in 2009”).

I’m just…I don’t know what. Flabbergasted? Disgusted? As if championing pro-environmental issues was something a political party could “risk”. That’s just beyond incredible to me. And frankly, it gives lie to assertions that Topp makes on page 27 about the NDP’s treating the environment and the economy as “two sides of the same coin”. I’m sorry, Mr. Topp – but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim that approaching pro-environmental policy as a risky undertaking, while pro-economic policy is a no-brainer. If the two were, as you say, two sides of the same coin, good public economic policy and good public environmental policy must be approached from the same starting point – that of good public policy.

A Justification for the NDP's Abandonment of the Environment?

But instead of trying to reconcile the NDP’s short-sighted, cynical vote-gathering strategy with what might or might not be good environmental policy, Topp instead takes a swipe at the BC Green Party, in a lame attempt to justify the NDP’s own relative silence on environmental issues. In a George Orwell moment, Topp claims that the very existence of the Green Party works against good environmental policy:

“Indeed, the existence of the Green party provides a compelling electoral incentive for all other parties at all levels of government -- New Democrat, Liberal and Conservative -- to marginalize environmental issues, an important reason why these critical issues have faded from Canadian politics. The Green party is a perfectly legitimate player in Canadian politics with every right to contest elections – just as the NDP does. So far, their work is having the opposite effect of their aims.”

This is just utter nonsense on so many levels. First, to suggest that a environmental issues could be “marginalized” by the presence of a political party which has some good ideas about those issues is simply, shockingly absurd. That’s like suggesting that a party which champions social justice or economic issues will marginalize those issues – and that no progress will happen as a result. I’m just blown away by this parochial view that somehow the Green Party owns all issues related to the environment.

If the NDP really agrees with Topp, well, it might explain a thing or two about that Party’s relative silence on climate change, but I think that it’s going to shock NDP supporters to realize that their party has ceded all issues environmental to the Greens.

The reality, of course, is quite the opposite. All national political parties in Canada (and all pan-provincial political parties in B.C.) have developed numerous policies which affect the environment (for better or worse – but all parties, I’m sure, would suggest “for the better”). Just as good public policy related to economics or social justice are not found within the realm of a single political party, nor are good public policy proposals related to the environment within the hands of a single political party. The notion that they could be is just plain silly and not supported by the facts. But why should Topp let facts get in the way of a good partisan swipe?

Silly, too, is Topp’s attempt at portraying the Green Party as working against its own environmental interests. To leap to this conclusion, Topp pretends that environmental issues have been marginalized in this country as a result of the very existence of the Green Party.

First, I have to take exception to the notion that environmental issues have somehow been “marginalized” – when I read the newspaper, I see an incredible amount of coverage of environmental issues. The entire pipeline debate, for example, is driven by climate change and energy politics – both of which are significantly issues which affect the environment (as well as the other “side” of Topp’s coin – the economy). No, I’m sorry, but environmental issues have hardly been marginalized.

Political Courage and Conviction

But presume for a moment that Topp is correct – that Topp’s definition of “environmental issue” is somehow much narrower in scope than my own (and it almost certainly is), and that perhaps what Topp is really talking about are things like saving endangered species or water quality issues or the politics (but not economics) of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If that were the case, I might agree that Canada and B.C. have taken steps backwards on some of these matters – steps which might be perceived as their “marginalization”. But even if this were so, has it happened simply because the existence of the Green Party has thwarted the environmental ambitions of the other political parties?

Or might the real culprit be the other political parties themselves, which, for whatever reason, lack the courage or the conviction to truly speak up on behalf of the natural environment? Is it maybe because for those other political parties, environmental issues are simply another part of cynical electoral calculations to be considered as part of a winner-take-all electoral strategy? Maybe Canada’s environment is suffering, not because the Green Party has the audacity to exist, but instead because Canada’s other political parties continue to be unwilling to go to bat for it.

All of this leads me to ponder just where the hell are the NDP’s ethics on the environment? I happen to know a lot of people who support the NDP – some of whom diligently take part in the NDP’s policy development processes. I may not always agree with the policy approaches put forward by NDP members, and adopted by the party, but I can say for a fact that there are many NDP members and supporters who believe that their Party takes environmental issues seriously.

After reading Topp’s post-mortem, it’s clear that the NDP uses environmental issues and supporters in the same manner as they use all partisan issues – by putting policies and platform through a filter which, as a starting point, asks whether or not the policy is a vote-winner. At the end of the day, once the NDP backroom gets their hands on member-approved policy, who knows what kind of “vote winning” strange beast might emerge.

Moral Politics

It’s such an alien concept for me, a member of the Green Party. In my party, we tell our leadership and our backroom people what’s important through our member-approved policies. Trust me, some of our member approved policies are hardly what any political party would refer to as “vote winning”. But that’s not the point – the point is to advance good public policy, even in the face of adversity, not because it’s expedient, but instead because it’s the right thing to do. Our policies are grounded in our shared values (ecological wisdom, non-violence, social justice, sustainability, participatory democracy and respect for diversity). The Leadership doesn’t get to decide whether the Party will support (or not) a particular policy, and that applies even more forcefully to the Party’s backroom people (both of them).

No, in the Green Party, member approved policy can’t simply be discarded on the whim of a Leader, or because backroom partisan strategists conducting polls and focus groups determine that a different – and in some cases, a completely opposite course would serve the Party’s interests better. I understand that it might be easier for a political party to stay on message and demonstrate policy flexibility if it can believe one thing one day and the opposite the next, but where is right and wrong in that equation? Where the will of grassroots members who work tirelessly to promote the Party and its policies? Where is the moral compass?

Topp's NDP - Not What Canada Needs

We can’t continue to waste our time doing politics like this. That’s the message that I’m taking form Topp’s post-mortem. It’s too bad that so many NDP pundits seem to be taking the exact opposite message from Topp – what they’re getting out of his post-mortem seems to be that for the NDP to be competitive, it must engage in the same cynical, opportunistic politics of negativity that the Conservatives and Liberals engage in. Topp was certainly very critical of the decision to run a strictly positive campaign – but what’s really apparent is that, negative or positive, the NDP appears to have lost its moral compass – if it ever had one to begin with.

I know reading Topp’s post-mortem must be difficult for NDP members and supporters – and not simply because it highlights in great detail how Topp believes a winning campaign was lost. But also because Topp exposes the cynical, beating heart of the NDP backroom for what it really is. In Topp’s world, issues are games to be played, opponents are to be slammed at every opportunity, and no policy decisions can only be made when the polls and focus groups come back with a thumbs-up.

This isn’t what Canada needs. Our intersts would be served much better by an NDP built on the strength of its own convictions, rather than on cynical partisan game-playing.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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