With nearly two months of illegal squatting in a downtown Calgary park, the “occupy” Calgary squatters have finally packed up and gone home. No message was ever defined much less conveyed to the public at large. The only accomplishments really have been to have Calgary more clearly define the strength of bylaws should the city choose to enforce them.
Some squatter supporters have been trying to save face and claiming that the activity spurred discussion. Really? Discussion of what? There was never a solid issue and there has never been real discussion. There have been strange demands made by crazy squatters and vague statements. Nothing specific was ever addressed through this exercise and there certainly was nothing that was settled. Serious discussions of issues existed before the squatting and will continue after the squatting. The squatting never aided in any discussion aside from wondering whether there is a Charter right to squat in city parks at expense to taxpayers (it was clearly determined that no such right exists).
Now I put this out to the squatters who now find themselves with even less to do; do you really want to accomplish anything? Do you want to take a path that really does spur discussion and impact decision making? Are there issues that you really want to see seriously discussed by the public and decision makers?
If the answers to any of the above are yes, then please read on while I explain how people can influence discussion and opinion in electoral politics. It allows me to do one of my favorite activities in that I will be tooting my own horn in providing real examples on how small but determined groups can influence politics on every level.
When I was in my 20s, I found myself frustrated with politics in Alberta. Our Prime Minister of the time (Jean Chretien) had won a strong majority in an electoral campaign that blatantly demonized my province and in which he never once even so much as set foot in Alberta. Chretien openly made statements about how he did not like dealing with Westerners and I felt that attitude had been embraced as Ontario and Quebec had given the Liberals of that time a strong mandate. I looked to the existing political vehicles and did not see any party that I felt was standing up for Western Canadian interests in a strong enough manner. Since no such party existed, I formed my own.
The Alberta Independence Party was a soft nationalist party that existed for less than a year overall. We never even managed to get officially registered as a party and we fell in apart for a number of reasons (not the least of which was my inexperience in leading a party). Despite such a short existence, in it’s time the AIP brought about both national and local discussion regarding Alberta’s role within confederation. Heated debates were had in the House of Commons as multiple MPs and Senator elects attended our founding convention. Suddenly Western alienation was a worthwhile discussion in Ottawa.
Provincially, an election was called within weeks of our founding convention as a party. Despite our lack of registration as a party and only a few more than a dozen declared candidates, the throne speech that was held just before the dissolution of the legislature took multiple shots at our small party and set the tone for the beginning of the election. Candidates across the province were questioned on their stances vs federal incursions on provincial jurisdiction. National and provincial news pundits wrote countless pieces on Western alienation, the causes of it and potential solutions for it and alienation was a top coffee shop discussion around the province.
Despite this attention to the issue, as I said the party did not last long after the provincial election. We had made a mark though and had definitively had an impact on discussion and decision making.
My main point here is that in the partisan world, measurable accomplishments can be attained even without being in an electable position.
Now again to the squatters, one thing you do have is a common social group even if your specific goals are tough to define. You can turn something productive from this last couple months through keeping your group and moving into the realm of electoral politics if you choose to. All of the information required for founding a political party can be found at the Elections Alberta website. I have always found Elections Alberta to be excellent and very helpful in guiding one through the process.
There are some attitudes and ideas that will need to be shed by you if you are going to go this route however. I will list them below.
Public Opinion Matters!
Had the occupy squatter movement gained even a measurable 15% of strong support within the city of Calgary I assure you guys that your encampment would still actually exist as our elected city officials would not dare alienate a group like that. 15% is well within electoral spoiler numbers and no politician wants to go out of their way to cause a bloc of people like that to take their support elsewhere.
Along with a degree of support, the direction and momentum of the support is important. The Alberta Independence Party at it’s very best was probably only appealing to perhaps 15% in some selected constituencies. That number grew fast however and had potential to get larger. Any MLA who had won their seat with any less than a 20% lead had to at the very least pay attention to us. The best way to undercut us was to embrace at least some of our sentiment. Again, goals were being accomplished. They wanted to ensure that our numbers stopped growing.
The “occupy” Calgary group clearly saw public support eroding pretty much essentially since it’s inception. Incident after episode caused people almost daily to turn against the movement even had they been sympathetic before. Instead of being concerned with this drop in public support, what we saw mostly from the group was an attitude of “FU, we don’t care what you think.”. Well you should have cared guys. As it became clear that the support trend was going downward, city officials felt more emboldened in taking action to end your demonstration.
As I demonstrated, you can come from a small minority position in general support yet still have an impact on policies, discussion and decision makers. You will not be able to do so though until you realize and accept that a degree of dedicated public support is essential to your cause.
Find, define and promote a message!
The shotgun approach to issues was a great part of the occupy undoing. Constantly people pointed out that when one asks 10 “occupiers” what the issue is they get 11 answers. That is laughed off and it is often pointed out in an almost arrogant manner that this consensus model is what it is all about and only fools should be asking for or expecting specifics.
Well kids, you need to get over that concept. Months have been wasted and still nobody knows what you even stood for. You can’t claim that discussion was inspired when you can’t even define the issue.
Part of why myself and others have been able to so consistently beat the hell out of you guys in discussion is that you have allowed us to frame the entire debate. When you refuse to define yourselves, rest assured somebody will do it on your behalf and as you know, folks like me were not kind in making our definitions.
Think of it this way kids. You had been squatting for a couple weeks and nobody could figure out what point you were trying to make. I parked my truck there in counterprotest, made the point that a double standard existed in law enforcement and set the entire discussion of the whole thing for the rest of the movement on being about the “right” to squat in a park illegally. One man did that in one afternoon with a plan and a solid message.
The Alberta Independence Party had what I still think to be a very good and comprehensive policy book. Despite that, the reality was that at best we were only considered an authority on issues of provincial alienation. We accepted and worked with that. Nobody came to us to hear what we thought of healthcare provision, but we found our way into the discussion when we pointed out the federal shortcomings in funding transfers to healthcare (particularly when compared with federal funding for Quebec). We were single issue in many ways but we found ways to apply our views and make ourselves a group worthy of consideration on more diverse views.
While literally hundreds of issues exist, voters realistically are only closely watching perhaps a half-dozen issues and they base their electoral decisions on those views. Fight it out guys and find your common ground. Identify five solid issues and stake your ground on them. Become experts on those issues and make yourselves the authority on them. Learn to apply those five issues to broader issues as I did with provincial alienation. Then people will come to you and if you do it right, they will stay with you.
You need the media!
Yes the media is often biased. The media can be fickle and they can be nasty. You don’t need to even like the media but you had better damn well learn that they are essential to you if you want to influence public opinion and decision making whether in electoral politics or in any other form of activism. The majority of people on all ends of the political spectrum get their information from the “corporate media” and they base their views on that information. To shun this is nothing shy of idiocy.
I saw and documented many forms of idiocy from the “occupy” Calgary crowd. One that definitely made the top 5 though was yesterday’s stupid press conference stunt. To get media together for an event and then walk away refusing to comment was petty, pointless and to be blunt just bloody stupid. You don’t have to pursue the media or kiss their butts, but to go out of your way to piss them off is just dumb. Believe it or not, those reporters do have better things to do. What few may have been even a tiny bit sympathetic to you disappeared yesterday morning after that stunt. When you already know that they can be biased, why purposely turn that bias against yourself?
I led a soft-nationalist party. I was attacked and abused from editorialists from across the country. I was mocked by some and outright attacked by others. The CBC was particularly skilled in their patronizing and belittling coverage of us. I did not let this stop me from doing interviews. I certainly did not lash back. It was pointless.
As I said, the CBC was terribly rough on me. I recall doing a Newsworld interview where the host just pummelled me for the entire thing. I felt out right lashed and exhausted after that loaded interview. After the interview, our phone rang off the hook and memberships poured in. Don’t underestimate the public’s ability of seeing through the bias. The interview got our message out to a whole new group of people and we gained support despite the bias.
I remember one Globe and Mail piece that began with “Cory the Kid and his pipsqueak party held a convention in Red Deer last weekend.” After that opening sentence, the editorial began to get rough and patronizing with me. After our founding convention the Globe dedicated three days of editorials explaining to Canada why our party didn’t matter. We never could have bought such advertising. While rarely was there ever a favorable article about us, the support through contributions, volunteers and memberships continued to grow as people got familiar with us.
I am not of the view of any press being good press. If they are reporting on something idiotic that has been done by you, then you simply will look more the idiot for the coverage. Bias however is not always all that harmful even if it irritates. As long as you are somewhat solid in your message, you can and will withstand the slant.
Don’t forget, the media needs you too. Put yourself in the shoes of a reporter. You have a deadline and you need something interesting to write about. You need quotes and interviews to make your piece stand out and be unique in presenting information to people. Rest assured, reporters don’t get far by figuratively beating the piss out of everybody they interview. They will not get further quotes and information from people for long with that approach. Set aside the paranoia and address them guys. You need each other.
Get a leader!
Every movement/party needs a leader/spokesperson. I know the “occupy” thing was supposed to be leaderless. Well it showed. Along with a consistent message, you need a consistent voice/face presenting it or it will be forgotten and lost.
One of the reasons that the Alberta Independence Party took off for the period that it did was because they had a dashing and well spoken young man who people could comfortably approach and get statements from. It was tougher to stereotype us as old white Christian men as people often did with Reform when the leader was a twenty-something, outspoken social liberal and agnostic who was of mixed ancestry. No leaderless group can dodge such pidgeonholing without having a leader to counter it.
People and press need a consistent face representing the movement as much as they need a consistent message. The leader need not be a dynamo or saint. The leader simply needs to be consistent, know the issues and be at least a bit sane (may be tough for the last part).
Is the goal change? Do you really want to see serious discussion? Do you want to impact decision making? Again I strongly suggest that you take the tips above to heart. A small group can have a large impact if things are done right.
Even if your goals are simple selfish bragging rights. Lets look at a comparisons of outcomes.
One day I will be able to tell my grandkids that I formed and led a political party that caused national discussion of Alberta’s role within confederation and set the tone for an entire provincial election.
One day our “occupy” Calgary squatters will be able to tell their grandkids that they alienated the entire city of Calgary and will be forever be remembered for pooping in a park.
Which outcome do you prefer?