Monday, October 24, 2016

Higgs Wins -- What It Means, and Free Advice

Well, I called the plot twist, but got the ending wrong.  I may have predicted that there would be a surprise endorsement from a Central NB candidate for Monica Barley that would take her to a 3rd ballot win over Mel Norton. But the win, and congratulations, go to Blaine Higgs. 

When Cleveland Allaby and Margaret-Ann Blaney chose Bernard Lord over Norm Betts, they delivered nearly 70% of their delegates to a bilingual Dieppe lawyer with a fresh face. Jake Stewart and Brian MacDonald had, together, nearly 21% of the vote, and less than a fifth of it followed them to Barley, a bilingual Dieppe lawyer with a fresh face.  
"So, if Monica has 940 votes, and we have 1200 votes between us, after our endorsement she should have....860 votes? Are you sure that's right?"

I'd predicted that type of endorsement because in party contexts, it makes sense.  It is the perfect meeting of self-interest and party’s interest. Parties are broad coalitions, and they need leaders of their most divergent factions to join together. And the leader least able to speak to a given faction needs that faction’s leaders more than anyone. The establishment of the party needed Jake Stewart to embrace Monica Barley and bring their people together. And for Jake and Brian, it made sense – they might have more in common with Mike Allen, but for the same reason, Mike Allen doesn't need them as key lieutenants like Monica Barley does. 

This will be a column of threes, and let’s start with THREE REASONS THAT THIS TIME, THE PARTY ESTABLISHMENT COULDN’T PULL IT OFF – “it” being the shotgun wedding between Team Jake and Team Monica.

1. Parties should get used to grassroots rebellions.  From Trump to Corbyn, party members are less likely to follow traditional power-brokers.  Tory voters aren't immune from this global trend, and when Jake Stewart tried to turn his followers’ passion for issues to personal trust, he found out that voters don't follow so easily anymore.
2. The language divide is broader. This would be the most worrisome Tory trend. In 1997, the PC electorate was reflective of the language demographics of New Brunswick (after all, the Valcourt election results were bad, but evenly bad across NB). If the party membership has become disproportionately Anglophone, members may feel less inclined to compromise for the electoral necessity of a leader who bridges the divide.
3. No trend, just timing.  Of course, it might have all been about this particular moment. After all, in 1997 Tories had been thumped three times by McKenna and might have been more willing to consider compromise to win than now, two years removed from power and believing that Gallant may fall on his own. And Lord was a cagey political savant, and handled those divides more easily than Barley seemed to in her impromptu comments on the language commissioner. 

Before the vote, I said Blaine Higgs was like the veggie tray at a Christmas party, in that everyone thought he was good for governing but feared his baggage and dislike of kowtowing to political expediency/necessity (depending on your view). His colleagues find him smart but inflexible, and he has the brand of a smart, straight shooter who also bears scars of Irving employment, CoR membership and pension reform anger. 

Some veggie tray, Lamrock. Don't doubt me again. 

Yet, he prevailed – and he prevailed over a field that had at least two plausible versions of the Lord/Graham/Gallant floor model, a new face with a certain ideological flexibility and limited baggage. So, I might bring forward THREE THINGS THAT HIGGS’ VICTORY MEANS.

1. The experience pendulum is swinging back. A series of short-lived governments led to parties following a bad beat with a new leader who couldn't be tied to the last gang. As governments fell more quickly, that meant parties were discarding past generations of ministers very quickly and the talent pool was increasingly shallow.  Higgs reverses that trend – he managed to sell the idea that he would still represent change if he were the boss, instead of a senior minister. There are ominous signs here for Gallant – the opposition didn't think “we need to find our own Gallant”. They thought – “we need to offer up something that doesn't look at all like Gallant”. We shall see if this reflects a good read on the electorate or just PC opprobrium for the Premier.
2. The bilingual test has been suspended, pending outcome. Ever since John Crosbie flamed out saying that he could deliver for francophones even if he couldn't talk to them, there has been a minimal standard of bilingualism required to be considered for the big job. It may be a sign of the times and tensions that a majority of Conservatives were willing to set that aside, buying Higgs’ argument that he could learn French faster than a bilingual neophyte could learn how to govern.
3. Parties don't just want to win once. The flip side of getting a leader without baggage to have an easier win seemed to exact a price – leaders who had no experience and promised to simply “consult and listen” arrived in office unprepared to make decisions.  When inevitably the world moved on without them, the economy and public services suffered and they grew quickly unpopular. Blaine Higgs may be a tougher sell for a first term, but if he wins, he will have a clearer mandate and be more ready to deliver. After a few weak governments, Tories seemed to be thinking of governing. 

Every new leader changes the political landscape, and so the amateur strategist in me has THREE PIECES OF POLITICAL ADVICE for the parties.  First, for our new Opposition Leader. 

1. Find something you care about beyond the bottom line. Higgs speaks passionately about the need for government to make smart business decisions, and there is an understandable hunger for managerial competence and common sense right now. But one shouldn't let arrogance set in – just as a minister of health can't take over a large company and know everything, a business leader can't assume everything is the same.  A government balance sheet isn't the end in itself – good fiscal management is what allows government to do its vital tasks like health and education well. I'd advise Blaine to not only be passionate about accounting, but to find one big public goal like literacy, senior care or poverty reduction where better management can also make a difference. Talk about this as well. If the Liberals are incompetent, but the only party that cares, that's an even fight. If they're less competent even when delivering liberal goals, then you'll have a big advantage. 
2. Build a team.  People trust you, Blaine. Some don't like you or agree with you, but they think you are smart and sincere. This will horrify you, but take a page from Jean Chrétien and Shawn Graham, two likeable, down-to-earth politicians who weren't afraid to be told their weaknesses and find lieutenants who reassured people. The presence of Paul Martin, John Manley and Marcel Masse next to Chrétien in 1993, and the presence of Mike Murphy, Roland Hache and, well, me, by Shawn Graham’s side in 2006 were not accidents. Some of Gallant’s advertising has echoes of a messiah complex – the leader handles all big announcements, the leader alone is in the ads. You have smart francophone lieutenants, some solid progressive conservatives, some emerging young people to draw from.  Trust me, when your opponent has Don Arsenault as his most visible minister, you can win the team battle.

The Liberal Team, both of them.

3. Define yourself quickly. You won't be able to use the dodge that Alward and Gallant used when their opponents began to implode. You can't just promise to consult on everything. It isn't you, and you won't be good at it because you know better. But the Liberals are already going through your public utterances, ready to describe what makes you different from them. These wedges won't be to your advantage. So you need to define yourself. You need a quick, simple answer on language questions, even if it's a shield and not a sword. If you are going to blast their deficit spending, you need to quickly find something – corporate welfare, local project pork – that you will do differently. You do have baggage, like anyone who served and tried to actually do something. They will want to frame every cut you'd make as something that people lose. Be ready to frame anything you'd cut as something that allows you to do something they haven't, such as balance the budget or fund education.

Now, three unsolicited tips for Liberals

1. Don't overplay the language card. This election may come down to a few swing ridings, likely suburban anglophone ridings. These voters will be afraid of an election that is wholly polarized on language lines, and they will notice your opponent’s unilingualism on their own. But if they see you venturing into demonizing him for it, or suggesting that no accomplishment is worthy of respect if the person doesn't know French, they may decide that you're polarizing things.  The early shots at Higgs were too strong for a government that already has a perception problem. Trust Swing voters to weigh all this. 
2. Curb your appetite for pork. You've got a federal cousin who wants to help. No doubt you've envisioned ribbon cuttings galore to help win a second term.  Just be aware that, if your MLAs give in to a natural politician’s wont to serve your own ridings first, there will be an unbecoming geographic imbalance there. Someone will be adding up roads paved, schools closed, businesses funded, cuts levied – and those already have some serious imbalances that may look like an attack you didn't intend.  You also have an opponent skilled at making an example of the first wasteful project you greenlight and using it to undercut your leader as too green and weak to say no to anyone. You may have to say yes to good projects in Tory ridings even if it ticks off a minister or two with a pet project. Remember that it may put the government at risk if you only say yes to your own. 
3. Get ready to choose. Somewhere, there's an old memo from me to the 2010 Liberal campaign team urging the party to embrace a left-right campaign. The thinking was, if two-thirds of people want your leader gone, issue divides are your friend. David Alward did this in 2010 – having won power as a guy who would consult and find consensus, he ran as a premier taking a tough-if-divisive stand on fracking. It was smart – fracking was a 50/50 issue, which was a better focus for the PCs than just asking voters to re-elect a premier with a 29% approval rating. 
2010 was "Say Maybe". 2014 was "Say Yes". 29% approval ratings do that. 

The Liberals have tried to indulge the dream of being beloved by all.  In a time when people generally don't like their governments, incumbents need to embrace the fact that elections will be 60-40 fights, and to choose to focus on issues where they have the 60%. If there's a weakness right now, it's that the Liberals haven't defined themselves enough to give people something they'll fear losing if they turf the  government – at a time when voters love to turf governments. 

Finally, it bears repeating that New Brunswick had a record-high third party vote last time, and polls still show that holding (if not growing) right now. I have pointers for third parties too, but you'll have to guess what those are by what lies ahead. 

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