(This article was originally published in The Tyee as part of Toolkit for Change, a series on communications tips for concerned citizens.)
'Borgen' is an addictive Danish drama about coalition politics (really!).
Like many at my local video shop, I spent too much of last year watching Borgen, the Danish political drama not available on Netflix. What I loved about the series, besides its exploration of political, social, and sexual power, great scripts and gorgeous cast, is its fly-on-the-wall depiction of the inner workings of coalition governments and the media that cover them.
For Canadians tired of our unrepresentative one-party-rules political system, where coalition is the c-word, watching Borgen is a delicious escape, as well as topical and instructive. After all, coalitions -- however vilified by Harper's Conservatives -- are how we Canadians often hash out our differences, and trigger major change: civic, social or political.
In the communications armament at the disposal of non-profits, values-based business and citizen-activists -- the focus of these Toolkit for Change columns in The Tyee -- coalitions could be the most powerful tool of all.
Yes, they require careful crafting and frequent maintenance, and can go sideways, leaving participants burnt-out and embittered. But, done properly, coalitions (temporary unions between two or more groups with the aim of gaining influence) can become much greater than the sum of their partners, wrong-foot their opponents, galvanize public attention -- even change the world.
"They open up opportunities that otherwise would not exist," says Bill Tieleman, the strategist and regular contributor to The Tyee, who may know as much as any Canadian about the topic. "People tend to talk in their silos, drink their own bathwater; coalitions give their partners insights into how others think and operate, and reveal (surprising) points of agreement."
Setting the ground rules
Tieleman, architect of the successful Fight HST coalition and two successful coalitions against the single transferable vote in British Columbia (2005, 2009), is now a leader of the Yes-side for this spring's pivotal Metro Vancouver's transit referendum. His chosen team: an unholy alliance that includes gaffe-prone TransLink as well as the BC Chamber of Commerce, BC Federation of Labour, mayors, students, cyclists, car-sharers, etc.
"The media impact of having strange bedfellows in political coalitions is enormous -- and so interesting for me," he says. "I am now working with John Winter, president of the BC Chamber of Commerce, whom I opposed in the HST debate."
Coalitions, as Tieleman suggests, are great teachers. The riveting second episode of Borgen focusses on Birgitte Nyborg's manoeuvring to become Denmark's first female prime minister. It is 2010, and in the hours following an election that produced no clear winner, her task is to forge a coalition that her upstart Moderate Party could be part of -- or, ideally, lead.
At first, it appears she hasn't a hope, and everything is on the table. Birgitte negotiates possible coalitions with leaders of her obvious allies (the larger Labour Party, Greens and leftist Solidarity Party), but also meets with the outgoing Liberals (party of big business) and its recent coalition partner, the Freedom Party (farmers and older Danes, opposed to immigration).
It is a fascinating, high-stakes game -- as Birgitte learns on the run -- and her options shift minute by minute, based on the multilateral horse-trading and her shrewd assessments of what her Moderates stand to gain or lose, principles included. Her greatest lesson, ironically, comes from the veteran leader of the Freedom Party, who after acknowledging their insurmountable differences, confides that to be prime minister she must learn to bluff. Which she does, with success and her principles more or less intact.
Being true to one's principles may be the greatest reason people choose not to team up with their rivals. So the best coalitions have clear objectives. Tieleman's previous coalition partners, for example, agreed not to propose alternatives to the harmonized sales tax or the single transferable vote -- just to hammer away at the messages: HST/STV are bad.
Coalitioneers should also ensure that all partners have something to contribute and gain. And before taking the leap, they should ask questions such as, "Do we intend simply not to compete with one another? Or are we joining forces in name, declaring publicly our support for one another? Or are we planning to collaborate more deeply, sharing resources, research data and other information?"
Teaming up against HIV
Once the ground-rules are set, however, amazing things can happen. British Columbia is a world leader in addressing HIV and injection drug use thanks in large part to the work of a loose, but highly motivated and unusual coalition that came together in the late 1980s. It began with angry gay and, later, hemophiliac activists who were dying from HIV in shocking numbers. When they challenged the conventional doctor-patient hierarchy to demand a say in HIV research and care, an unprecedented coalition emerged with university researchers, infectious disease specialists and nuns from Providence Health Care/St. Paul's Hospital.
Their goal was a cure to HIV, and by the mid 1990s St. Paul's was at the forefront of this global campaign. It became the home of the Canadian HIV Trials Network, which gave people living with HIV a central role in the development of trial proposals. It also founded the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, whose director, Dr. Julio Montaner, was one of the team of clinicians who announced the discovery of life-saving HIV antiretroviral therapy at the World AIDS Conference in Vancouver in 1996.
When an epidemic of HIV broke out among injection drug users in Vancouver later in that decade, aboriginal leaders, drug users, and eventually the mayor teamed up with members of the established HIV coalition and lobbied successfully for harm reduction measures. First came needle exchanges, then two North American firsts: a supervised injection site and the NAOMI clinical trial (North American Opiate Medication Initiative), which demonstrated the value of medically prescribed heroin for drug-dependent individuals, for whom no other treatments were available.
As communications manager at the Canadian HIV Trials Network, I was lucky to be part of this coalition, developing strategy and coordinating the launch of the $8-million NAOMI trial (2005) and, nationally, helping forge and coordinate a coalition to successfully lobby for a doubling of the budget of the Federal AIDS Strategy.
Highlights included briefings with federal ministers of health and hearings -- organized by a Bloc Québécois MP, before two House of Commons Standing Committees, which led to unanimous committee support of our proposal, including that of the Canadian Alliance MPs.
(Aside: By contrast, the Alliance's future leader, MP Stephen Harper, listened in stony silence to our representatives when they visited his Calgary office, then -- when asked to help fight the stigmatization of the disease by having an HIV test, and tell the world -- told them the meeting was over, early.)
Staying the course
From the beginning of our campaign, Paul Martin's Liberal government made favourable noises. His various health ministers, however, skated around the issues. And it wasn't until we had informed him that our supporters would be staging die-ins, blocking major streets at noon in five major cities on the eve of the 2004 federal election, before Minister Pierre Pettigrew stood up in Parliament to announce the requested increase in the AIDS funding, the first in 11 years.
Working together over three years, this national coalition of French and English groups representing people with HIV, aboriginals, researchers, doctors and human rights lawyers was a dump truck of work. Hammering out shared language for ministerial briefings and agreeing on tactics was particularly taxing.
But the bilingual coalition hung together and stayed the course. As a result, it won all kinds of media coverage, and ultimately allowed a loose alliance of very different groups to open the purse strings of a tight-fisted federal government and help Canada do much more in addressing a cruel epidemic, while strengthening the hand of all involved.
For a good primer on coalition-building, check out Joining Forces: A Guide for Forming, Joining and Building Political Coalitions by the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based non-profit.