Lessons from Roubaixgate, or why Cafe-Roubaix won

Aside from being a cyclist and netizen, I am also a former PR guy, and I wanted to share some thoughts on Roubaixgate.

But first, a primer…

ImageSpecialized unleashed the online fury of cyclists worldwide this weekend when it came to light that they had threatened to sue the owner of a very small bicycle retailer in Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, alleging that the shop infringed one of their trademarks because the shop (Cafe-Roubaix Cycles) was eponymously named with a famous cycling race (or was it a bike Fuji makes?) a bike model Specialized makes. (Cochrane is a small town near Calgary, Alberta, which was the location of the final stage of the 2013 Tour of Alberta.)

Within hours, the story had gone viral, with stories being written on cycling, news and blog sites and cycling netizens berating Specialized on their various social media channels. While, it eventually ended peacefully after the real owners of the “Roubaix” trademark, Advanced Sports International, publicly admonished Specialized, resulting in Specialized CEO Mike Sinyard personally called the owner of Cafe-Roubaix to start discussing an agreement without the threat of a lawsuit, the consensus across the internet is that this has been a public relations nightmare for Specialized.

I am not an “old pro”, but my time in PR did include the resignation of a premier and a leader of the opposition and major health care scandal, so I have seen enough action to be able to say that Specialized’s actions are a textbook case of what NOT to do. Here are some observations.

1. Can =/= should

While there is debate on whether or not Specialized’s could sue Cafe-Roubaix (their lawyers say yes, ASI CEO Pat Cunnane says no), the real question is whether or not they should. The decision to sue should have based on a cost-benefit analysis of whether the cost of the suit (in terms of loss of revenue due to the loss of patronage) is less than the loss of sales from potential customers buying from Cafe-Roubaix instead of Specialized. If that last sentence did not make sense, good, because the only Cafe-Roubaix branded bike components are their custom carbon fibre wheels, which are most definitely the same thing as an endurance road bike and are branded differently than Specialized’s Roval wheels. Moreover, Dan was willing to compromise, but Specialized wanted nothing short of a complete rebranding of the store, making them seem even more unreasonable. From a cost-benefit standpoint, I do not think Specialized would have lost any sales to Cafe-Roubaix, and, instead, they have lost current and potential customers due to their unreasonable position.

Image

It’s not good when your company’s actions spawn internet meme. Image from Buffalo Bill’s Bike Blog (http://buffalobillbikeblog.wordpress.com/)

2. Don’t hide under a rock

The textbook case of effective public relations during a crisis is Johnson & Johnson’s response to the “Tylenol Scare of 1982.” The effectiveness of Johnson & Johnson’s response is attributed to their swift and decisive actions and their acceptance of responsibility for what happened. The results is that, not only did the Tylenol brand recover, but it continues to be a successful product today.

Specialized, did the exact opposite. Their twitter account went silent.

Their Facebook account not only went silent, but had the settings changed so that posts from others were hidden (I’ve overridden their default setting in my link so you can see the vitriol they incurred). Of course, that did not stop angry netizens, who took to commenting on every post with links to the original Calgary Herald story about Cafe-Roubaix. Supporters of Cafe-Roubaix even changed their names and profile pictures in solidarity with the shop and created various image macros and hashtags lampooning Specialized. The worst was when the CEO of another company responded before we so much as heard from a nameless spin doctor from Specialized.

The lack of a response is all the more baffling given Specialized’s past of being very prompt with communication. I have sent emails and tweets to them before and have received responses within twenty four hours.

Either their lack of a response was a deliberate part of their strategy (which is a big no-no) or they did not anticipate or were unprepared the backlash that occurred (which is a different issue, but a failure nonetheless). Granted, the story did co

me out on the weekend, but their PR department would have had some kind of an alert to notify them of responses.

My guess is the communications personnel were caught off guard by the public response and notified their managers, who responded the same way turkeys respond to decapitation.

3. Don’t be a repeat offender

This is not the first time Specialized has acted like a bully. Remember Volagi? Remember Epic Wheel Works? No wonder there are threads dedicated to discussing Specialized’s litigous streak. With every lawsuit or threat thereof, the response has been swifter and more acerbic. The fact that Cafe-Roubaix owner Dan Richter was a veteran (a fact irrelevant to the validity of the lawsuit) stirred passions even more. Once is isolated. Twice is a coincidence. Thrice is a pattern, and no one buys Specialized’s legal arguments and only sees them as a bully.

4. Eat crow, prominently

Specialized CEO Mike Sinyard personally spoke with Cafe-Roubaix Dan Richter to work out some sort of a deal. That is a positive step, but is still short of a sincere mea culpa. Given their litigious streak (see #3 above), paying lip-service will only fuel customers’ cynicism and reinforce the perception that Specialized did not want to back down and only did because they were afraid of losing money, rather than because it was the right thing to do. Charles Pelkey has a great blog post about what Specialized needs to do in order to recover as a brand.

5. Perceptions are reality

Business is like politics and in that what is true is not always as important as what appears to be true. There is a great post on Red Kite Prayer about the lingering questions about the Roubaixgate affair. like why did the Calgary Herald article not address the fact that Cafe-Roubaix makes wheels or why the Canadian patent office issues a “Roubaix” trademark in the first place. Moreover, there is the larger issue of whether or not place names should be trademarked at all. However, none of that matters.

Dan Richter played the only card available to him. The columnist who wrote the Calgary Herald piece, Tom Babin is a cyclist and a commentator on cycling issues. He is also paid to write columns that sell newspapers, and his angle is transparent. The reality is that business, like politics, involves asymmetrical ‘warfare’, which has given the Davids of the world and advantage over the corporate Goliaths. This was not so much a battle about trademarks as it was a story about about a bully and an underdog, which is why the technical aspects of the fight, important as they were in a legal sense, did not get much play. Thus, the power of a compelling narrative won over the power of the law.

Final thoughts

The big question people are asking is: Can Specialized recover? A better question is: Do they have to?

Strong as they reaction was online, hyper-engaged cycling netizens are likely only a fraction of Specialized’s market, and are likely not the ones keeping them in business. (I am not certain, but, if I had to guess, the customers buying $700 Hard Rocks and could care less about a bike shop in small-town Canada are). If Specialized can avoid getting in this kind of trouble too often, they will emerge relatively unscathed in the long run.

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With my soon-to-be-defaced S******** Allez in B.C.

Where do I stand? In full disclosure, I am a Calgarian, and Dan Richter is an acquaintance of mine who I visit every time I am in Cochrane via bike. He provides excellent customer service, and helped me patch a tube when I flatted multiple times on a ride. I also took the time to post on Specialized’s wall and Twitter feed. Why? Because I’ve owned a Specialized Allez since 2004 and feel ashamed to ride it around Calgary now…at least until I get some Cafe-Roubaix stickers and use them to cover up the Specialized logo.

 

 

 

 

And, in case someone from the Big S reads this post: These opinions are mine alone and are not representative of what current, past or future employers, clients, friends, family or other associates of mine believe.

Juana San Andres de Guzman

ImageBorn: July 12, 1916 (Valenzuela City, Philippines)
Died: December 2, 2013 (Calgary, Canada)

Juana San Andres de Guzman passed away peacefully in the company of her family in the early morning of Monday, December 2, 2013 in Calgary, AB.

Juana is survived by her children, Pacing, Ruben (Zeny), Bining (Fely), daughter-in-law Fe, Mar (Nene), Rick (Lorna), Maria (Boy), and Ana (Rene). She also leaves behind 35 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren and 2 great-great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her husband of 42 years, Bernardino; sons, Greg, Santy and Simeon; son-in-law Arturo and daughter-in-law Lita.

Born in Valenzuela, Philippines in 1916, Juana and her husband Bernardino had a farm where they raised their family. Despite making a meager living as farmers, they were able to send their children to school, four of whom would immigrate to Canada.

She would eventually move to Canada in 1982 after the passing of her husband. She was known as a loving, doting matriarch to the de Guzman clan, who always put her family’s needs before her own. Her legacy inspires all of us to live the virtues of compassion and self-sacrifice.

The family extends its thanks to the wonderful staff at Extendicare Cedars Villa where Juana spent the final three years of her life.

A Prayer Service and Visitation will be held at Foster’s Garden Chapel, 3220 – 4 Street N.W., Calgary (across from Queen’s Park Cemetery) on Thursday, December 5, 2013 from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. A Memorial Service will be held at Holy Name Catholic Church, 2223 34 Street S.W., Calgary on Saturday, December 8, 2013 at 11:00 a.m. Expressions of sympathy may be forwarded to the family via the website www.fostersgardenchapel.ca.

Backpacking on a budget

I recently went on a short overnight trip with some friends of mine, two of which had not been backpacking in a while and one of which had never been backpacking at all. As is the case with many trips outdoors, we had a conversation about how expensive it can be to get geared up for an outdoor excursion. Having started building up my own arsenal of outdoor gear while in university, I know how expensive it can be, so I felt compelled to write a post about how to amass quality gear without breaking the bank. For the sake of brevity, I have organized this into a list of tips.

  1. Mountain Equipment Co-op is your friend. MEC, or its American analogue (and inspiration) REI, is a cooperative, so it is not hell-bent on milking every last dollar out of you. They sell good gear at reasonable prices, and they even have a house brand of clothing and gear that can get you quality approaching that of premium brands like Mountain Hardwear or Arc’teryx, but at half the price. (There is a difference, and the premium exists for a reason, but if you can afford North Face, you probably should not be reading this post.) Common trade-offs are weight, packability, specialization of design. Quality and durability can be issues too, but rarely. Still, if you are going to Everest, chances are you can either afford the fancy brand names or you are sponsored. Surprisingly, even things you can get at a department store are cheaper at MEC (like fuel).
  2. End-of-season sales are your friend. My two-person backpacking tent cost me less than $150 because I bought it in September. It is not a department store special, but a Mountain Hardwear Drifter 2. Had I bought it in summer, I would have paid over $200. I do shop at Atmosphere, but I refuse to pay full price because whatever I want to buy will usually go on sale at some point.
  3. “Cheapest now” is not always “cheapest in the long run.” Case-in-point: I have a friend who bought cheap hiking boots that literally fell apart on the first trip he took them out on. Tents are another example–I know people who have bought cheap tents that either leaked or did not breathe, leading to a miserable night and an inevitable upgrade, or worse yet, giving up on camping.
  4. Sometimes, cheap is good. I have a pair of $20 hiking poles from Army and Navy that are still kicking around. They are not the lightest things pair and the twist lock is not as convenient as a flip lock, but they cost a quarter of the price of brand-name poles.
  5. The used market is a great source for deals. I bought my Scarpa mountaineering boots through Kijiji for $100, or a third of what the list price would have been. The MEC Online Gear Swap is another great place to look. There are also community gear swap sales. MEC holds one of these annually, and I picked up my crampons for $70, or about half off. While you do have to be careful with some used gear, you can find good stuff for cheap if you look and bring someone along to screen your selected items before you fork over cash.
  6. Shop online. I recently discovered Department of Goods, which is an online clearance outlet for outdoor gear that sells for 30-70% off retail price on brand-name gear. (I normally like to support my local stores, but even I could not turn down a deal like 50% off a gore-tex shell, much less a student on a budget.
  7. Prioritize purchases. You do not need to own everything right away. Chances are someone you know has gear that they can share with you (like a tent or stove) during a trip. If you have a group of friends you regularly go with, purchasing group gear can be spread out. Finally, you can also rent expensive items, which allows you to try-before-you-buy or to have a stop-gap measure to deal with a specialized situation (like a one-time winter camping trip; really, when is the next time you would need a -20C sleeping bag?).
  8. Find other creative ways to save money. I switched to white gas from propane for car camping and some backpacking trips. I am outdoors enough that the long-term savings from using white gas offsets the increased cost of a white gas stove. Making your own dehydrated meals is cheaper than buying expensive freeze-dried ones. (And no, I do not mean buying a dehydrator. Think more along the lines of ramen, minute rice, and egg powder. I have even heard of uber-minimalists who just eat boiled quinoa, but that is too much even for me.) A couple of granola bars is cheaper than a Clif Bar, and, honestly, probably tastes better too.

Being outdoors should not have to break the bank–in fact, the consumerism that has infected outdoor pursuits is rather antithetical to the whole point of experiencing the simplicity of nature. That, however, is another post.

I hope you have found this list helpful. Please feel free to share your comments or your own tips about backpacking (or camping, hiking, etc.) on a budget!

Canada Day 2012 at Cataract Pass

Despite being an avid hiker, scrambler, and car camper, and despite having wanted to go backpacking for some time, this 2012 Canada Day Long Weekend was my first backpacking trip.

And what a trip it was.

The destination: Cataract Pass, 2484m, on the border between Jasper National Park and the White Goat Wilderness Area. We started on the Nigel Creek Trail (which is part of the larger Continental Divide Trail system) in Banff National Park. At Nigel Pass (which is on the border between Banff and Jasper National Parks) we followed the Brazeau River to its headwaters just below Cataract Pass.

The group: Mostly alumni from VIRG Edmonton’s Thursday Night January to March 2012 ASPIRE climbing class.

Our group on Cataract Pass on Day 3

On paper, the trip seemed straightforward. A distance of 13 kilometres and an elevation gain of 650 metres are not Herculean targets, but I underestimated the effect of pack weight, and our group collectively underestimated both how much snowfall the Continental Divide receives and the terrain we would encounter. I made a liberal estimate that the hike in would take six hours. It ended up taking nine.

After Nigel Pass, the rest of the route was above treeline in the Brazeau River Valley and heavily snowed in.

I wasn’t kidding about the snow. This is the Brazeau River at Nigel Pass.

Pretty much the entire Brazeau River Valley was snowed in.

The terrain was also quite rough, and we had to cross a boulder field filled with fridge- and shed-sized talus. This section was my favourite, since it was pretty much a scramble, minus the elevation gain.

The boulder field

After the boulder field, we trudged through a snow field and then up a mix of snow and scree up to the pass. Even doing the ‘rest step’, I still had to pause for breath here and there, and a recurring thought in my mind was, “Next time, I won’t be this tired!”

Looking back from just before Cataract Pass. This doesn’t look like summer to me.

Chris was the first to summit (the group has since concluded he is a machine) and the rest of us arrived in intervals of a few minutes. More than eight hours after leaving the Nigel Creek trailhead, we had reached our objective. My contribution to the group was to build a fort out of our packs, so we could huddle together and take some shelter for the wind. After a short break for a snack and to catch our breath, we descended more snow and scree slopes towards the Cataract Creek Valley in order to find a place to set up camp.

Descending into Cataract Creek Valley

We reached the creek in a little less than an hour, only to find that Mother Nature—having covered most of the valley with snow—had already chosen our site for us.

Our campsite

The neat thing about camping in a wilderness area is that you are not limited to designated camping sites. On the flip side, there are no outhouses, and you have to carry in a bear canister to store your food. After setting up camp and having a quick meal, Rachel taught us how to play Kaiser. We managed to play a few rounds before the sun set and we decided to call it a night.

No one had much energy the next day. Well, at least none of us mortals—Chris “The Machine” went for a stroll up to the ridge above our camp. Garvin had brought some art supplies and did some painting (there was no shortage of inspirational vistas). Tony brought the second book to the “Game of Thrones” series. We played some more cards, shared some stories, watch avalanches on the neighbouring mountain, and take naps.

An avalanche on the mountain above us. Avalanches would occur about every half hour.

We also drew up an exit strategy. Knowing that the hardest part of our return trip was at the beginning, we decided to leave for Nigel Pass the next day and decide then whether we would stay an extra night or push all the way back to the cars.

The conditions on day three were less-than-ideal. It was cold, windy, and raining, I led the assault on the snow slope above camp, kicking steps along the deceptively steep slope.

The ascent back to Cataract Pass

Front-loading the difficult portion meant we were back on the pass in a little over an hour. The best part about the descent back into the Brazeau River Valley was that the snow-covered slopes made for fun glissading.

We made quick progress across the snow and boulder fields back to Nigel Pass. Tired, and lured by the prospect of hot food at the Saskatchewan Crossing café, we decided to finish our trip that day. Seven hours after packing up our camp, we were packing our gear into our cars.

Reflecting back on the trip, I am happy things played out as they did. Had the weather been hot and the route free of snow, we would have been fighting dehydration, heat stroke, and hordes of insects. It is also rare to have a trip with as much varied terrain as what we encountered. We started off on a muddy trail, crossed a river, scrambled on talus, and trudged through snow. Depending on which pictures you look at, the trip could have been in either summer or winter.

However, a trip is about much more than just the terrain you conquer (or, rather, Mother Nature allows you to endure) or the destination at which you arrive. Unless you are Ueli Steck, you are probably travelling with companions, and hearing a buddy make a funny joke is a welcome morale booster when your toes are sore from kicking steps up a steep snow slope. Even more than that, when you are in a remote area in unforgiving terrain, who you have with you could determine what the outcome would be if things were to take a turn for the worse. Other than some slight delays and some gear problems here and there, our trip went smoothly. Having belayed and been belayed by my companions, I think there was a certain level of trust that existed between us that not all friendships are not able to cultivate.

Perhaps I speak only for myself. Perhaps I am romanticizing the mountains, which I must admit is one of the places I love the most. The entire drive home, I thought about the trip and hatched ideas about the next adventure.

The last thought I had as I crawled into my warm bed after a hot shower was, “This is nice, but huddling in a tent playing Kaiser and passing around a bottle of Fireball whiskey would be even nicer.”

Thanks to Chris, Tony, Rachel, and Garvin for an epic trip.

Minority rights, reasonable limits, voter turnout, and the Quebec student protests

As someone with libertarian sympathies, I can appreciate the furor over Quebec’s Bill 78, which places limits on protest activities, such as a minimum distance from post-secondary facilities and the requirement of advance notice before a protest takes place.  Moreover, I also see the potential of this bill backfiring on the Charest government. Even a cursory scan of news reports following the bill’s passage shows that parents and older Quebeckers have joined the ranks of students in the streets, and as the scope of the protests continues to expand from the original raison d’être of accessibility of post-secondary education.

On the other hand, I am also puzzled, particularly by the support of leftists/progressives in English Canada.  Why? Because Bill 78 is arguably quite Canadian, and progressives tend to lament the ‘Americanization of Canada.’

Regardless of the ultimate underlying political reason for Bill 78, one of the things it accomplishes is to protect those students who are not protesting and wish to continue attending classes. The protection of minority rights and the strengthening the standing of traditionally disenfranchised groups in Canadian society (women, visible minorities, First Nations, the handicapped, LGBT groups, etc.) are key issues for many of the Canadian left, and key objections of the new Canadian right. I do not know the exact proportions of students protesting and not protesting, but it seems counter to principles the left has historically stood for to oppose allowing conscientious objectors to the protests the right to attend classes—something for which the ‘scabs’ have applied and won via a court injunction.

Moreover, as anyone who has read the Charter of Rights and Freedoms knows, it “guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”  I am no lawyer or constitutional scholar so I cannot comment on whether or not Bill 78 would pass the Oakes Test, but the fact still stands that it is within the purview of governments in Canada to place limits on freedoms outlined in the Charter, assembly and expression included. One need not be familiar with Seymour Martin Lipsett’s writings on Canadian and American societal development to know that, on the issue of “rights versus order,” Americans lean towards rights and Canadians lean towards order. The difference is spelled out in the respective constitutional documents: American society seeks “peace, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” whereas Canadian society seeks “peace, order, and good government.”

Perhaps Canadians are simply becoming less deferential, as argued by Neil Nevitte. Or, perhaps, for the left, the value of challenging the establishment trumps the value of protecting the rights of the minority of students who are not protesting.  Or, perhaps the answer is a lot simpler; maybe this has been about the self-interest of students wanting cheap tuition all along.

My vote is with the simple explanation. While tempting to say that the Charest government’s decision to raise tuition by a few hundred dollars is a betrayal of the principles of the Quiet Revolution, as MNA Geoff Kelley explained to CBC’s As It Happens on Tuesday night, even with the increase, the percentage of the total cost of post-secondary tuition that Quebec students would be paying remains at the 17% level set after Le Révolution Tranquille.

That is not to say there is anything necessarily wrong with acting out of self-interest; it is perfectly within the rights of Quebec students and student organizations to do so. Perhaps this issue will help mobilize young voters, who likely made up a large percentage of the 54 per cent of voters who stayed home in Quebec’s 2008 election. After all, if the Charest government really is as intransigent as the student leaders say it is, then no amount of protesting will equal the power of showing up to the polls as a bloc and “throwing the bums out.” The students cannot forget that, as much as some of them would like to compare themselves to the Arab protesters of last year, as much as some would like to call the government tyrannical for imposing limits on the freedoms of expression and assembly, the society in which they live is still democratic and still has free elections, and they should avail themselves of that avenue that so many Arab civilians died to bring to their societies.

If turnout in Quebec’s upcoming provincial election does not substantially rise, if there is no significant expansion in the number of citizens exercising the fundamental freedom guaranteed by democracy upon which all others are based on,  then what message does that send about all that they have fought for in the last hundred days?

Fighting the enemy indirectly: Mulcair, Harper, Redford, Smith and the oil sands

Canada’s Official Opposition Leader, Thomas Mulcair, predictably, took up the banner of attacking Alberta’s oil sands and claiming they were crippling Canada’s manufacturing sector by inflicting Dutch Disease on Canada’s economy. I will leave the economic debate to the economics. Instead, I want to discuss how politicians fight their opponents indirectly. While this is not technically the same as attacking a straw man, it is similar because, though a politician claims they are challenging one thing, in reality, they are actually challenging another.

While western Canadian leaders decry Mulcair’s anti-oil sands comments as ‘divisive politics’, can anyone really blame him? The NDP only won three seats in the Prairies, so it only make sense, strategically, that he would court vote-rich Ontario where many ridings in manufacturing centres are held not by the NDP, but by the Conservatives. What better way to win them over then by blaming their hardships on the oil sands and the pro-oil sands Conservatives? Note that Mulcair’s criticism focuses on the pain of the eastern manufacturing industry and not the environmental issues that regularly plague the energy sector. This shows the NDP is confident the post-materialist left is solidly within their camp and does not need to be chummed with environmentalist rhetoric, allowing them to focus on a pro-industry, pro-manufacturing, pro-labour message. Why attack the Conservatives when most Ontarians supported them and when they take credit–rightfully or wrongfully–for keeping Canada in relatively good shape, vis-a-vis the rest of the western world, during the recession? Far better to attack the Conservative’s credibility indirectly by portraying the west as a bogeyman, and then painting the Conservatives as being guilty-by-association.

Premiers must stick up for their province when they come under fire, so, of course, Christy Clark, Alison Redford, and Brad Wall mounted a counter-offensive against Mulcair. Alberta Opposition Leader Danielle Smith also waded into the fray. However, Smith’s target was not really Mulcair, but Redford, whom she alleged was not doing enough “to be a champion for the development of the resource.” (Smith was more vocal on the Rob Breakenridge Show, but audio from her interview is not yet up on the web site.) Smith is more concerned about Mulcair’s comments insofar as she can accuse Redford of being an ineffective defender of Alberta. Redford, being the very intelligent leader she is, will likely ignore Smith so as not give the Wildrose any more attention than necessary. However, if forced to comment, Redford will likely accuse Smith of sowing the seeds of division within Alberta instead of presenting a united front against the enemy in the east. Similarly, I would not be surprised if Smith would speculate that the reason Redford is not being more vocal  is because Redford owes her victory in part due to NDP supporters.

As an aside, while I do not usually comment on BC or Saskatchewan politics, both Clark and Wall face NDP opponents in their respective provinces, which makes is a convenient side-benefit of fighting the NDP federally.

Such is the reality of politics–that it is often easier to attack an enemy indirectly than to face them head on. (The military analogue would be to invade France by attacking Belguim first in order to avoid the Maginot Line.) Mulcair attacks Harper by attacking the west. Smith attacks Reford by attacking Mulcair. Even the Alberta Liberals have accused the PCs of not standing up to the feds enough in an attempt to build up support in Alberta, which just goes to show that everybody does it.

While politicians appeal to the principle of unity, consensus is impossible, and a party really only needs 50 percent plus one in order to seize or maintain power. Thus, how they push their policy agenda requires strategic decisions about which segments of society to court and which ones to antagonize. If discord is inevitable, necessity dictates that political actors will seek to sow its seeds in a way that suits their favour.

Second choices in the 2011 and 2004 elections

I found out the 2011 Canadian Election Study data has been made available to the public, so I just had to download it and start going through the data. (If you are unfamiliar with the CES, a short description of it is at the bottom of this post.) The CES Team outputs several official publications and presentations on the data, so there is little that I could contribute to the great work that they already do. (Though, as an aside, it is a dream of mine to work on the CES, even as a research assistant.) Rather, I look at particular topics of interest to me. Today’s post is about second choices.

Even without going into the topic of strategic/tactical voting, measuring voters’ second choices collects valuable data. From this data, one can infer the number of ‘blue Liberals’ or ‘red Tories’. That can also help show which parties had a broad appeal and were able to appeal to voters as a credible alternative to their preferred choices.

The following tables are crosstabs of vote choice by second choice for the 2004 and 2011 elections. Why these elections? 2011 is most recent, and 2004 is the first election with the current party configuration (i.e. where there is a united Conservative Party of Canada, or CPC ). For both elections, respondents from Quebec were excluded from the analysis.

2004 vote by second choice, ROC

2nd choice Vote
Lib CPC NDP Total
Lib 66.9% 75.4% 40.3%
CPC 41.4% 24.6% 22.2%
NDP 58.6% 33.1% 37.4%
Total 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%

n=927
Source: Canadian Election Study 2004

2011 vote by second choice, ROC

2nd choice Vote
Lib CPC NDP Total
Lib 34.3% 65.8% 33.6%
CPC 24.0% 34.2% 17.2%
NDP 76.0% 65.7% 49.2%
Total 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%

n=1063
Source: Canadian Election Study 2011

Obviously, a degree of change is to be expected, given that the 2004 election resulted in a Liberal minority and the 2011 election resulted in a CPC majority. However, how the changes in patterns of second choices is substantial. Whereas Liberals’ second choices in 2004 were about a 41 to 59 split in favour of the New Democrats, that ratio has since widened to 24 to 76. The Liberals used to be the second choice of about two-thirds of Conservatives, but by 2011, the Liberals and NDP exchanged places, and the latter are now the second choice of most Conservatives. Ideologically, it seems counter-intuitive that a conservative would favour the NDP over the Liberals as a second choice. However, due to the regionalized nature of party competition in Canada, there are some regions where the contest is predominantly between the CPC and NDP. Moreover, the CPC’s majority in 2011, and the decrease in the number of Liberals whose second choice is the CPC, could also indicate that they were able to successfully appeal to voters who usually vote Liberal but whose second choice is the CPC.

Finally, the most interesting—to me, anyway—finding is that, in the 2011 election, the NDP was the second choice of almost half of all voters in English-speaking Canada. Whereas the Liberals were the second choice for a plurality of voters in 2004, in 2011, the NDP was the second choice of almost a majority of voters—and increase that comes at the expense of both the Liberals and CPC. This provides further evidence of the broad appeal of Jack Layton and the NDP’s efforts over the last couple of years to moderate their image to not only appeal to a broader cross-section of the electorate, but to deliberately squeeze the Liberals out. Given that the CPC has, in spite of having a majority government and in spite of fulfilling a few ideological promises, resisted pressure to revert back to its decidedly ideological stances of the past, the Liberals are facing an existential problem of how to define themselves when the best parts of its policy stances are being co-opted on both sides.

This was a quick analysis done on a single variable between two elections, so I do not want to make too much of this. However, with the last remaining old-line party trailing Canada’s new parties that are in a statistical dead heat (May 12, 2012), I cannot help but wonder if the Liberals will suffer the same fate as the Progressive Conservative party of old. If so, then, from a party systems perspective, Canada could be experiencing one of the greatest political realignments of its history.

(For additional read, I recommend looking into John Ibbitson’s ‘Death of the Laurentian Consensus’ thesis. This blog post by The Reeves Report summarizes it well.)



About the Canadian Election Study:

The Canadian Election Study (CES), it is a study done by a team of political scientists who specialize in public opinion and voter behaviour for every federal election. There are three ‘waves’ of surveys: a campaign-period telephone survey that is done by a rolling cross section throughout the campaign, a post-election telephone survey, and a follow-up paper survey that is now done on the internet. The study covers many topics outside of how people voted like their attitudes and beliefs, political activity, volunteer work, and demographics

Internal conquest: what non-conservatives must do first if they want to win

Alvin Finkel, co-chair of the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project and ChangeAlberta, wrote a blog post on Sunday wondering what the next step for Alberta’s ‘centre-left’ is, and I thought I would respond with a blog post of my own.

First, electoral behavior research regularly shows that the average citizen does not think in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and that many citizens do not really understand what those labels mean.

Second, if one takes Alison Redford’s policy agenda, strips out names, reduces it to general principles, and gives a summary to a class of Political Science 201 students, the class would likely be split in guessing whether that agenda was put forward by a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ party. Moreover, there would be similar results if one repeated the exercise for Peter Lougheed’s policy agenda. What this illustrates—besides the uncanny ability of the PC party to take the pulse of the people—is the enduring strength of pragmatic, non-ideological politics in Alberta. Redford is on the right track when she dismisses the importance of ideology.

As an aside, consider the esteem to which Lougheed is held in various circles. Within the PCs and most political observers, he has reached apotheosis. Many Liberals will also sing Lougheed’s praises. Some will even crack the joke that a Liberal premier once ruled Alberta, and his name was Peter Lougheed. New Democrats and Wildrosers, however, tend to have a more cloudy view of Lougheed, and their respective objections tend to be predictable on an ideological basis. (If you do not believe me, do your own mini-survey!)

Third, I highly doubt that Liberals, New Democrats, and Alberta Party-ers agree on 98 percent of issues. Have you seen debates between ND ideologues and ND pragmatists? Or, between pro-name-change and anti-name-change Liberals? How can there be accord between parties when there is hardly accord within parties?

While Finkel laments the ‘narcissism of small differences’, such is the reality of politics. Furthermore, the practical issues of who would get to lead and what the name would be of a hypothetical ‘grand coalition of non-conservatives’ would be even greater issues to surmount.

What is the solution to the problems of coordinating non-conservative parties and voters? It is not more dialogue. It is not strategic voting. It is not electoral reform. It is quite simple: remove the need to coordinate in the first place.

There are countless stories of feuding sibling states that were unified, and by ‘unified’, I mean ‘one leader of one sibling state conquered the other sibling states and imposed unification’. China, Britain, Italy, Germany, and Saudi Arabia are all great states in different continents and in different times that were unified by great leaders through hard-fought conquest. The parallels between war and politics need not be explicated to understand this point. The very conquering of the federal PCs by the Reform Party clearly illustrates a contemporary Canadian example.

I do not think that a formal merger needs to—in fact, I do not think it could—take place. Rather, one among the parties of the non-right needs to subdue to the others and become the dominant banner under which non-conservatives stand. Alberta’s own history has shown that there is little room for one non-conservative party, let alone two. That has been used as evidence to support Alberta’s generally conservative nature, or hostility towards non-conservatives. However, one cannot ignore the fact that Laurence Decore came closer to unseating the PCs in 1993 than the Wildrose did in 2012, and he was not only a Liberal, but a Liberal in a time when the NEP was fresh in people’s minds. The other fact about 1993, which is often overlooked, is that Decore wiped the NDP off Alberta’s electoral map, which is not the first time that one of the two main non-conservative parties has done that to the other. That shows that it is within the realm of possibility for a non-conservative to form government in Alberta, but that the removal of competition from other non-conservative parties is a prerequisite.

The solution is not complex, but quite simple: destroy your competitors for hegemony amongst non-conservatives. That the NDP moved towards the centre and the Liberals moved to the left during this election campaign indicates that both of them understand there can only be one of them. The Alberta Party, in rejecting both the NDP and Liberals, seems to have an understanding of this argument as well, though I doubt if the majority of their rather idealistic membership has the stomach for realpolitik, when their raison d’etre is to move away from such ‘old-fashioned politics’.

Of course, even if one party among the NDP/Liberals/AP were able to conquer the others, there is no guarantee they would actually be able to unseat the Tories. Alberta has not elected a ‘non-conservative’ government since 1930, but that was a different era, and the United Farmers were also agrarian prairie populists—something to which none of the non-conservative parties of today could lay claim.

I could go on, but I am already starting to ramble. The bottom line is that, if non-conservatives want to succeed, they will need to be forcibly united under one banner. If that sounds undemocratic, bear in mind that democracy does not actually ‘seek’ consensus but imposes consensus through the will of the majority. What I am suggesting is nothing more than the imposition of consensus among non-conservatives in a way that functionally reduces their political choices to one party, thus obviating the near-impossible task of coordinating votes.

The political football of MLA pay

Politicians are one of the most reviled groups in society, and incidents like the ‘no-meet committee’ only fuel the citizenry’s perceptions of a culture of entitlement and privilege among not only politicians, but their ilk. The recent report on MLA pay, while recommending elimination of the transition allowance, clarification of committee pay and the effective trimming of backbenchers’ salaries, is under fire for suggesting a substantial (over 30 percent) increase to the premier’s salary. Premier Alison Redford immediately decried the proposed increase as overly generous and has said she will not take it. Regardless of what one thinks about politicians’ salaries, the issue illustrates an interesting conflict between the principle of impartiality and political necessity.

When MLAs’ salaries went up in 2008, there was a large public outcry over not only the increase, but the way in which it was decided, which was by the politicians themselves. Unsurprisingly, there were calls for MLA pay to be set by a third party, which would prevent politicians from interfering with the process for their own benefit.

‘Benefit’ is an interesting term because the common assumption is that the only ‘benefit’ politicians could extract from interfering with the process is a financial one. However, there is also the issue of benefitting politically. How? By acting counter-intuitively and lowering their own salaries in an effort to gain political capital (or, at least, not lose further political capital).

Am I dismissing politicians’ sincerity when they say they think they are overpaid? Not necessarily. However, if one is cynical enough to think politicians are “only in it for themselves,” then surely one must also be cynical enough to admit the possibility that politicians who refuse raises are only doing so to curry favour with the public.

This brings me to the tension between the principle of impartiality and political necessity. While Redford stood her ground about the impartiality of the review being conducted by former Justice John Major during the leaders’ debate, the public outcry over the issue of entitlement before and during the campaign necessitated her about face once she saw the size of the raise she would be getting.

Ironically, this also illustrates the selective castigation meted out by public opinion. To be technically precise, Redford is flip-flopping by abandoning her promise that MLA pay would be set impartially, and she is interfering with the process for her political benefit. However, if she did not flip-flop, then she would be just another overpaid politician who is only in the business to benefit themselves.

Do I think she made the right decision? In response, I ask, what is the ‘right’ decision? She arguably has made the ‘right’ decision, in terms of political necessity, and I think that is how public opinion will play out.

As a slight detour, I do not think politicians’ salaries are actually the real issue here. Professional athletes, corporate executives, and Hollywood celebrities are all paid exponentially more than politicians, and the average person does not seem to mind, or at least does not mind enough to stop watching television or going to hockey games.

Politics, however, is something that is hard to understand and something that happens underneath a big dome in a far off place, well-removed from day-to-day life. Because no one really knows what politicians do, it is hard to conceptualize how much they should be paid or what comparable benchmarks for their salaries sould be. Moreover, controversies like the ‘no-meet’ committee only give credence to society’s worst fear that politicians do not actually do any work.

Anger over MLA pay is about more than just money—it is about trust. While I do not think people will ever be happy about how much politicians are paid, I think most people would not care if they thought the politicians were doing a good job.

And that is why it will take much more than refusing a raise to restore public confidence in politicians. However, in the eyes of a cynical public, it is likely a welcome start.

The new Official Opposition must represent all Albertans

Today, new MLAs were in the Legislature receiving their introductory orientation. If rookie Cardston-Taber-Warner Wildrose MLA Gary Bikman’s comments are any indication, there might be some lessons that new MLAs need to learn that will not be taught at orientation.

The Wildrose Caucus’ rookies, being the new kids on the block, will face heavy scrutiny in the anticipated second spring sitting of the Legislature, and comments like Bikman’s are exactly what people will be watching for. There are only so many staffers that the Wildrose has with Legislature experience, and they are likely facing a shortage of trained handlers (or fart catchers, if you prefer that term) to assign to each MLA. This problem will be made worse for them, given the decentralized nature of the Wildrose. The populist tendencies of its members will come into conflict with the practical necessities of managing Caucus business, which favour centralized command-and-control over discussion and dialogue.

Moreover, the Wildrose is now Her Majesty’s Official Opposition and must–despite the potentially republican leanings of some of its members–uphold the Westminster tradition of standing up for all Albertans, rural and urban. Bikman’s comments are all the more distressing, given the Wildrose’s weak showing in the cities. Having only two MLAs in suburban Calgary, and none anywhere in Edmonton, Alberta’s new Official Opposition cannot afford to tolerate such open antagonism to city-dwellers, if it hopes to expand the inroads it has made in Calgary or establish a beach head in Edmonton.

This means that the issues they choose to fight need to change as well. The property rights battle may have won them south and central Alberta, but most people in the cities either do not know or do not care about the property rights debate. Transit, municipal transfers, school overcrowding, etc. are the hot-button issues in the cities, and I wonder how willing some rural-centric Wildrose MLAs will be willing to pour over alternatives to GreenTrip, when it is an issue that most affects arrogant inner city sophisticates who are probably more likely to vote NDP than Wildrose?

If the Wildrose do not learn what it means to be the Official Opposition early enough, there will be more bozo eruptions, more needless discussion of contentious social issues, and more evidence that they are not yet ready to form government.

 

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