Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Would the real Jeffrey Simpson please stand up?

Some fresh air for those of us who are depressed today about the miserable defeat of the PEI electoral reform referendum: it seems that the Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson may be coming around on just that topic. Now, granted, he's not exactly standing up and saying: "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see," but there's certainly something different going on in that bespectacled little head of his. His latest column (behind the subscriber wall) predicts "major changes" for Canadian federal politics in the future, and includes the following fascinating paragraphs:

Minority government circuses, such as the one Canadians just witnessed, could continue with a series of similar parliamentary shows, but that's unlikely. This minority Parliament has been quite disgusting at a theatrical level. It has featured what minority governments usually exhibit: orgies of spending, short-term survival tactics, wheeling and dealing, and extensive bad manners. The way politicians and the political process are now perceived, combined with the winter weather, will make the voter turnout the lowest on record.

Another shapeless, shameless Parliament such as the one just ended will produce change. Here are some options.

A structured coalition government will emerge -- a Liberal/NDP coalition, for example -- that will bring somewhat greater stability than the issue-a-day manoeuvring of this Parliament.

Or, another shapeless, shameless Parliament will cause Canadians to admit that the day of national parties is largely over. As a result, more voices will demand that the electoral system be changed to make coalitions among parties the norm, as in all countries with proportional representation.

Can this really be the same Simpson who, just two months ago, wrote a whole column about how the crazy German and New Zealand election results could be blamed on That Evil Proportional Representation? The guy who threw two entirely different forms of government into the same pot by coining the nonsensical phrase "minority/coalition governments"? The guy who said that the inevitable results of proportional representation were regional and ideological parties, small parties lording massive amounts of power over parliament, and dogs and cats sleeping together? (Okay, maybe he didn't say that last part.)

Did the bloggers and letters-to-the-editor writers spank him hard enough that he finally got the message? Did he figure out on his own that his anti-reform stance was not only completely misinformed, but a little silly? Or is there a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Simpson thing going on here? Inquiring (albeit pleased) minds want to know.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Boy, did google steer them wrong

To the visitor who just found my blog by searching on bad Mixed Member Proportional System PEI: I hope you enjoyed your stay. Don't forget to check out the other post I made this morning, too.

*sweet smile*

Proportional representation FAQ

Why would we want to switch to a different voting system? The existing one has worked just fine for hundreds of years.

If you really look at what tends to happen in Canadian elections, it becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly that First Past the Post isn't working very well at all. Representative democracy is about two things: one, every citizen has the right to representation, and two, the majority win the right to make decisions. Under the current system, it rarely works out that way--in the 2000 federal election, for example, the Liberals won only 41% of the vote, but more than 57% of the seats in Parliament. When we consistently have "majority" governments that weren't actually elected by a majority of voters, there's a huge problem for the basic concept of representative democracy. In Canada, First Past the Post has been neither representative nor democratic.

This is a simple principle, and it's the one and only reason to switch to a fairer system. But a look at how proportional systems function in practice across the world suggests that there might also be several desirable side effects. Proportional systems tend to lead to a larger voter turnout. They tend to produce legislatures with a greater proportion of women. They tend to be less likely to produce strategic voting, allowing people to vote for the people and/or parties they truly like best. They tend to promote more civility in the political process. Every country is different, of course, so there's no promise that these things would all happen in Canada, but comparative evidence suggests that at least some of them would be likely. And those would all just be bonuses on top of fixing the democracy problem.

Okay, the existing system isn't perfect, but isn't it the best we can do in practice?

It really isn't. I, too would find the status quo to be an acceptable situation if there were no decent alternatives--after all, nobody's ever died or had their lives ruined because Canada doesn't have real representative democracy. But there are better alternatives, and they've been working well in most of the democratic countries of the world for decades. Proportional representation isn't just for wide-eyed idealists; it's a pragmatic solution to the inherent failings of First Past the Post.

Admit it, don't you just want the system to change so that smaller parties like the NDP will do better in elections?

No. My interest in electoral reform in Canada didn't start with the NDP; it started with Germany. After growing up mostly in the U.S., the first parliamentary democracy I experienced "up close and personal" was Germany's Mixed Member Proportional system. When I first started paying attention to Canadian politics, my naive assumption was that things worked the same way here, but over the course of my attempts to understand the 1993 federal election (in which the Progressive Conservatives received 16% of the vote but only two seats), it became abundantly clear that this wasn't the case. I was shocked--why on earth would the otherwise oh-so-practical Canadians tolerate a voting system that produced such skewed results?

Years later I'm far more informed, but I'm still asking that question. So far, the only reasonable answer I've come up with is that while many people realize that the system is broken, they don't realize that there are viable ways of fixing it. That hardly sits well with an idealistic pragmatist. And while I'd be happy to see the NDP gain greater political clout, I only want that to happen if it's what Canadians actually vote for. Democracy should take precedence over ideology.

Okay, but be honest--it's still about giving more power to smaller parties, right? Wouldn't proportional representation hurt all the parties but the NDP and the Greens?

Proportional representation isn't about giving more power to smaller parties, it's about giving each party no more and no less clout than that given to them by the voters. That said, it's certainly the case that the NDP and the Greens would benefit most from an electoral system change, at least on the federal level. But the two big parties would benefit, as well. The existing system exaggerates regional differences in our federal politics, making it almost impossible for a Liberal to win a federal seat in Alberta, or for a Conservative to win one in Atlantic Canada or in urban areas like Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto--even though many people in those regions vote for those parties. This distortion regionalizes our politics in an extremely unhealthy way, and a proportional voting system would set that right. This may be part of why prominent Liberals like Alberta's Anne McLellan and prominent Conservatives like Ontario Conservative MP Scott Reid have come out in favour of proportional representation.

Aren't proportional voting systems really complicated? I like being able to go to the polls, check a single box with a pencil, and be done with it.

The math behind proportional voting systems is complicated, but the voting itself isn't. Pure party list systems are extremely simple--you just vote for a party rather than a person. Under a Single Transferable Vote system, you vote by ranking candidates, and who hasn't had the experience of making some sort of "top ten list"? Voting is easy under a Mixed Member Proportional system, too, because all you have to do is vote once for a person to represent your riding, and once for a party. Following the unification of East and West Germany, they even managed to explain that last system to lots of new citizens who'd never voted in a democratic election before at all. Canadians aren't somehow inherently less intelligent than the people living in the rest of the world's democracies, where proportional voting systems are the norm.

Don't proportional voting systems mean that we wouldn't have ridings anymore? I wouldn't want a system that meant MPs would no longer be accountable to a particular riding.

In general, I agree that Canada would be better off with an electoral system that retains the function of small local areas being represented by an MP or MLA/MPP. Fortunately, it's possible to keep that aspect of the existing system and still have proportionality. One option that would retain ridings and direct representation would be the Single Transferable Vote system as proposed in the B.C. referendum. Under that system, voters would rank their preferred candidates, and ballots would help several people get elected. The urban areas would retain single-member ridings, while the rural areas would have large, multi-member ridings.

Another possibility would be the Mixed Member Proportional system as used in Germany, which retains the concept of single-member ridings across the country. Under MMP, you get two votes. In the first vote--the riding vote--you vote for the person who you think can best represent your riding in parliament. In the second vote--the party vote--you vote for the party whose policies are most closely aligned with your preferences. Approximately half of the seats in parliament are then filled through the riding vote and half are filled through the party vote, by candidates from party lists. This might be a good model for Canada on the federal level because Germany is another country with very diverse region-specific issues--after all, they were actually two separate countries until fifteen years ago.

Don't proportional systems distort the vote and allow tiny regional or ethnic parties to gain huge amounts of power?

This can sometimes be an issue with certain kinds of proportional systems, such as the pure party list system used in Israel. On the other hand, there are other countries that use that system (such as the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands) which haven't had these kinds of problems. Also, our existing First Past the Post system distorts the vote in precisely these ways already--in the 2004 federal election, for example, the Bloc Québecois received 54 seats with only 12.4% of the vote. So even if Canada did go with a pure party list system, there's every reason to believe that this aspect of things would still be better than it is now.

In general, though, I agree that it's a good idea to prevent tiny, single-issue parties from gaining too much power, which is why it's a good thing that there are proportional systems that prevent these problems. Under Mixed Member Proportional, each party is required to surpass a threshold of 5% in order to assume seats. Single Transferable Vote also has a built-in threshold that functions similarly.

I'm not crazy about this whole "party list" concept. If parties got to choose who went on their lists, wouldn't that end up turning into a patronage factory, giving us a bunch of lousy MPs?

It could happen that way, but it wouldn't have to. A look at the world's electoral systems provides us with a whole bunch of different ways of compiling party lists without backroom jockeying. An "open list" would allow voters to arrange the order of list candidates. A "zippered list" would require every other candidate to be a woman, and serve to make Parliament more gender-representative. A list could be assembled through primary elections, or be composed of those who ran in riding elections but lost by a tiny portion of the vote. It could be assembled at the regional or even the local level, perhaps by riding associations instead of by those at the top. With so many choices, surely we'd be able to find something that would be right for Canada.

Wouldn't proportional representation produce minority governments forever and ever, though? That sounds incredibly unstable.

It's certainly the case that minority governments (in which the governing party or parties fail to attain a majority of the voices in parliament) have been historically unstable across the board. On the other hand, proportional systems don't tend to produce them any more frequently than First Past the Post does. In the entire post-war history of Germany, for example, there have been only three minority governments on the national level (Ludwig Erhard's 1963 government, Willy Brandt's 1972 government, and Helmut Schmidt's 1982 government). Each was very short-lived.

What proportional voting systems do tend to produce is coalition governments, which are about as similar to minority governments as apples are to kumquats. I'm not talking about informal agreements such as the one we saw between the federal Liberals and the NDP in 2005, but formal coalitions, where the involved parties agree to divide up cabinet positions among them, and work together as a single government to make and implement their common policy. Coalitions are formed precisely to do away with the kind of instability inherent in minority governments, and in practice, they have been extremely effective at doing just that. Again, look at Germany. The recently defeated coalition between the Social Democrats and the Greens was stable enough not only to last out its term, but to be reelected in 2002. Extremely stable coalition governments of the conservative Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats have also existed under chancellors Adenauer, Erhard, and the seemingly undefeatable Helmut Kohl, who was reelected a total of five times.

Wouldn't coalitions mean that a party with only 5% of the vote could end up with 50% of the power, though? That doesn't sound any more democratic than First Past the Post.

Certainly the situation in Canada in 2005--in which the minority Liberal government was propped up by the NDP--made it look like that's how a coalition might work. That's how things work in a minority government, though. A coalition functions quite differently, as a look at proportional systems across the world can tell us. A coalition government tends to allot cabinet positions to the involved parties depending on how well each did in the election, and then they sit down as a single government and develop policy together. In Germany's last coalition between the centre-left SPD and the left-wing Greens, for example, the Greens had to give a lot more than the SPD did initially because the SPD had received more votes and therefore more political clout. The ideas of the dominant party carry more weight, because they have more members in cabinet and more people sitting on the government side of the aisle. Then the parties act as a team to implement this jointly-made policy.

Compromise is inherent in a system like this, but you don't get the kind of "do this, or I'll stop propping you up" maneuvering that you saw in the informal Liberal-NDP agreement in 2005, because nobody's propping anybody up--the government consists of the whole coalition. Once the government parties agree on a political direction in the weeks following the election, it's in everybody's best interest to stick to the policies that have been devised and actually see them through to completion.

You keep going on about Germany, but didn't you talk here in this very blog about how crazy it was that they were having so much trouble forming a government after their last election? And didn't the same thing happen in New Zealand?

It's easy to try and blame the 2005 German and New Zealand election results on proportional representation (both countries use Mixed Member Proportional), but those who do that are misinformed. The problem wasn't the way the Germans and New Zealanders elect MPs, but the positively miserable performance of the two major parties in both countries.

Under proportional systems, it's typical for the major parties to have plans for potential coalition partners before going into an election. Once the result is known, then, the winning party can establish a working government right away. But in both Germany and New Zealand, the two major parties did much worse than they'd expected, making either of their preferred coalitions impossible. The blame for that muddle needs to rest with the current unpopularity of those parties, not with an electoral system that has worked perfectly well for decades. Close elections where the dominant parties perform badly are problematic under any electoral system, not just under proportional ones.

I don't know. If all these things were really true, then wouldn't we have already switched to a fairer system? There's got to be a catch somewhere.

It's really all true. Don't take my word for it, though--educate yourself. Read a book or two on electoral systems--they can be a little dry, but check one out from the library and page through it; it might surprise you. Canada-specific resources are unfortunately pretty scarce, but if you can get your hands on Steps Toward Making Every Vote Count edited by Henry Milner, it's new, well written, and very much worth your time.

As for the reason why we haven't already switched, well, there are two major ones. The benign reason is that there's so much misinformation out there about proportional representation that people don't realize what a good, practical solution it would be to the problems with our current electoral system. It can be very hard to educate an entire population without a lot of help from the people in power. Which brings me to the more sinister reason we haven't already switched--the fact that the people who have the power to change the system were elected by it, so it's in their best interests to make sure that the misinformation persists.

But...that's outrageous!

That's politics.

But this is why electoral reformers in Canada are starting out with local and regional grassroots initiatives, educating people and getting them interested in the issue. We do have a few allies among federal politicians, such as Ed Broadbent and Scott Reid, but for the most part, most of the work so far has been done in the provinces. And it's working. Despite the razor-edged failure of the referendum in B.C. and the probable failure of the one in PEI today, the movement is growing. A lot of people know more of the facts than they did a few years ago. There are a lot more of us than there were last year, or the year before, or the year before that. We stretch across all parties and all political movements. This idea isn't going away.

But what can I do about this? I don't have any special talents to offer an electoral reform movement. I didn't even know the answers to these questions until I read this FAQ.

Talk to people, both through electronic media and in person. Write letters to the editor. Argue with people who spread misinformation, whether it's deliberate or just out of ignorance. Link to this FAQ--or even crib ideas from it and write your own piece on the subject (I won't mind). Join Fair Vote Canada, a multipartisan, citizen-based campaign for voting system reform (at $10 a year, it's a bargain). Attend one of their local meetings and see what they're up to, and ask what you can do to help.

Let me put it this way: if you were patient enough to slog through this whole FAQ and smart enough to understand it, then you're one of the people electoral reformers need most.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

CBA round one voting vs. First Past the Post

Round One voting is open in the Canadian Blog Awards, and runs through November 30th. Apparently you're allowed to vote once per day. After you vote, the results are displayed with the names removed so that you can see that somebody's in the lead, and how far in the lead they are, but you don't know for sure who it is. Me, I've been nominated in two categories: "Best New Blog" and "Best Blog Post," and I'll be voting for myself in one category but not the other (which one is which is left as an exercise for the reader).

I can't help but wonder what our upcoming federal election would look like if we played by the same rules. The "you may vote once each day" provision would mean that every twist and turn of the campaign would be measured in countable votes, and it would also mean that political junkies and folks with lots of time on their hands would get more kicks at the can than everybody else. The display of a running tally of winners without names attached would mean endless speculation in blogs and the editorial pages about who's in which order, and the rallying of troops for the parties who manage to deduce that they're doing less well than expected. And polling would become obsolete overnight.

I still prefer MMP, but it might be fun for a lark. :-)

Friday, November 25, 2005

Time for a change

Like James Bow, Andrew Spicer, and Greg of Sinister Thoughts, I'm hoping that the upcoming election will bring us a new Prime Minsister named Stephen Harper.

No, my blog hasn't been hijacked by trolls. Hear me out.

The folks who have been wailing about how the world will end if the Conservatives form the next government need to take a step back and look at the reality of the situation we're in. Anybody who's been paying attention to Canadian federal politics for the past few years has got to realize that no matter what happens in January, we'll almost certainly be replacing one mostly non-functional minority government with another. For those of us on the left, this means one of the two following scenarios:

1) We will reelect an arrogant centrist party made up mostly of old white men resting on their long-withered laurels. With the help of the NDP, who will feel forced into propping up what amounts to the same minority government they helped to unseat (since the Liberals' sense of entitlement means that they would never deign to actually share power in any sort of formal coalition), they will get down to work. They will manage to concoct tolerable compromises half the time, do something we actually support once in a blue moon, and the rest of the time, they'll make us want to fly to Ottawa en masse and strangle them all. They will get the message that there's really no need to clean house after the sponsorship scandal, and that they have every right to feel that their rightful place is on the government side of the House of Commons, because Canadian voters will support them no matter what they do. It will last a year, year and a half tops, and then it's lather, rinse, repeat.

2) We will elect a bumbling centre-right party made up partly of young guys who we wish weren't sitting in Ottawa because they're too conservative for our tastes, and partly of young guys who we wish weren't sitting in Ottawa because they're Right Scary Bastards. It won't matter which of those two groups they choose their cabinet ministers from, though, because a minority government that none of the opposition parties can stand won't be able to get anything done, anyway. The new government will get all red in the face about the gun registry and same-sex marriage, and the opposition will vote down bill after bill, and we on the left will stand on the sidelines and point and giggle. In the few areas where they'll be able to find the occasional ally in the NDP
, such as government/electoral reform, there will actually be movement after years of stagnation, and we will rejoice. Mostly, though, it will accomplish nothing other than making the Conservatives look ineffectual and silly, and being superb fodder for Rick Mercer and company. It will last a year at most. In the meantime, the Liberals will be forced to ditch Martin and anyone else who might smack of sponsorship taint, and take a chance on a few bright new faces.

Neither of these situations is ideal, of course. But no matter what happens, the left simply isn't going to get "ideal" this time around. And if people force their knees to stop jerking and really think about which scenario would be better for progressive politics in this country
in the long run--and better for the country as a whole, for that matter--it sure seems like a no-brainer.

My first vote as a Canadian will be going to Linda Duncan, international environmental law consultant and NDP candidate for Edmonton-Strathcona. But my short-term hopes lie with Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Third Way blues

Yesterday, conservative blogger Greg Staples made some recommendations to the NDP: jump on the same Third Way bandwagon that's long since barrelled through the UK, Germany, and the U.S., and with the Liberals harmed by Gomery, you might just find yourselves RICH BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAMS running the country. This isn't a new idea; it seems to come up every time the NDP has a halfway-decent poll showing. And I'll hand it to you people, some of you almost manage to make the Third Way sound desirable. Of course, "position yourselves as the Party of the Left" sounds a lot cooler than "sacrifice a good chunk of your principles for the promise of power," which is how it ended up going with the social democratic parties in the UK and Germany, and with the Democrats in the U.S.

Greg asks whether the NDP wants power, or is content with being the party that forces the Liberal Party to enact liberal policy. Well, I won't speak for any NDPer but myself, but I'm quite honestly okay with never seeing power on the federal level if the alternative means a drift to the centre. There's already a centrist party in Canada; the last thing we need is another one. Working to make sure the Liberals stay liberal is far from ideal, but it's preferable to becoming the Liberals and leaving a sucking vacuum to the left of us. If we can remain a strong voice for the issues we care about, whether in opposition or in a coalition--and actually force some of our ideas to be implemented--who but the most self-serving of power-mongers can really object to that?

Look, I came here from a country that had its Left trampled by the Third Way, and I didn't head north just to watch the same thing happen to the NDP. I don't want to live in a country where there's no real left-wing party and the Left has to hold its noses when they vote. Been there, done that, hated it, ditched that sinking ship. If staying true to our core principles means being accused of being too lazy to govern and wanting to maintain our sense of "smug, self-satisfied, moral superiority" by Greg Staples' commenters, then so be it. I've seen the reality of the Third Way, and I reject it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Election questions

Because I don't want to wait for Paul Wells' undoubtedly more expansive, but still much slower-to-arrive data:

If we do end up having a Yule election, will it annoy you, or is it more "the sooner the better"? If it does annoy you, whom will you blame for the early call? And will your annoyance affect how you vote?

Friday, November 11, 2005

Remembrance Day: an outsider's perspective

I've never worn a poppy. I say this not with smug pride, but with a sense of discomfort and disorientation. I don't have a principled objection to Remembrance Day as it currently exists, like Clay McLeod or the Wonderdog; I simply don't understand it well enough to participate in it.

A google image search on "remembrance day" provides a good illustration of why. Paging through, we can recognize several main themes: poppies, gravestones, military and battle symbolism, and Canadian patriotic symbolism. And perhaps that all seems consistent to a Canadian-born Canadian, but to me it's always felt painfully conflicted and incredibly confusing. Remembrance Day is the one day a year when I feel not like an immigrant or a new Canadian, but like a foreigner.

Is it a day where we're supposed to meditate on the horrors of war? If so, then why all the pomp and patriotism, as if the horrors of war were unique to this country?

Is it a day for renewing our commitment to work for peace? If so, then why does so much of the imagery used to observe the day consist of old-time warmaking symbolism, as if to make the argument that war used to be so much more honest when it was fought hand-to-hand and with cannons rather than with smart bombs and computers?

Is it supposed to be about supporting the Canadian military? If so, then why aren't we doing that by making sure the existing soldiers have living wages, decent housing, and working equipment?

Is it supposed to be about honouring those Canadians who have fought in wars? If so, then why the emphasis on World War One and Two veterans to the exclusion of those who fought or are still fighting in more recent wars?

One of the major aspects of observing Remembrance Day involves purchasing and prominently displaying a plastic poppy. The point is clearly to make people who see you wearing that poppy think certain thoughts, and associate you with endorsing those thoughts. But what, exactly, are those thoughts supposed to be? If I could be sure that wearing a poppy meant sending a message like: "Thinking about people who have gotten dragged into the hell of war makes me profoundly sad, and I will strive to put a personal face on their deaths so that their lives won't be forgotten," then I would absolutely follow suit. But given the strange mixture of symbols ubiquitous on Remembrance Day, I'm unconvinced that's the message people would actually be receiving.

I have no answers, only questions.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Navel-gazing with a twist

My site stats indicate that someone reached my blog through this page. Anybody who's got any German, have a look, because it's freaking hilarious. Apparently, Andrew from Bound by Gravity is "das Niveau-vorangegangene kraftvolle des Blogging Tories." And the post I quoted from Majikthise a few posts back is "ein blogpfosten mich oben stehen und applaudieren wünschen läßt." And apparently there are other languages available, too.

Ah, machine translation. Gotta love it.

Desperately seeking Tory

The level-headed stalwart of the Blogging Tories, Bound By Gravity, is no more. Other people seem to have seen this coming, but I sure didn't, and it's a sad, sad thing. Andrew was the great unifier; his readers came from all across the political spectrum, and his comments section was always one of the few places in the Canadian blogosphere where the various sides actually showed each other respect. It wasn't neutral ground, but Andrew's strong sense of character almost made it feel that way.

So I suppose I'm on the lookout for a substitute. A Blogging Tory who writes well, who's firmly grounded in rational thought, who makes me think, who's respectful of opinions other than his or her own, and who's never used the word 'moonbat' except in a quote from someone else. Any suggestions?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Blogging, feminism, and critical thinking

I'm never going to win any awards as a feminist. Oh, sure, I believe men and women are intellectual equals, and I think the fight for equal rights among the sexes is a worthy goal that hasn't come anywhere near close to being achieved. Most of the time, though, the political goals that most occupy my thoughts involve electoral reform, health care, and post-secondary education. While I support feminist issues wholeheartedly, they simply aren't the ones that most speak to me most, and in the blogging world, I'm mostly content to leave them in the capable hands of others. Given this, I was quite astonished with myself when I ended up playing the feminist role in an argument with Jim Elve of the BlogsCanada egroup about women bloggers.

For those who don't feel like clicking through, here it is in as unbiased a nutshell as possible: Jim suggested that while 71.5% of bloggers and blog readers participating in the 2005 Canadian blogging survey were male, most of that survey's participants were involved in political blogs, and there would have been a lot more women if the survey's author had counted personal journals among the blogs as well. I thought this sounded suspiciously like the old adage about how men are interested in politics, but women are only interested in talking about their personal lives, so I asked Jim to clarify what he meant. He stated that women are simply less politically involved than men, and offered up the small number of women MPs as proof of this. I replied that the number of women MPs was hardly sufficient evidence from which to draw general conclusions about male and female political involvement, and he responded that there weren't very many women at a Green event he attended, either. I challenged him to offer up some data about the supposed greater political involvement of men, and he said all he'd meant to say was that there should be more female bloggers than there were. The conversation grew more and more frustrating as several onlookers began taking potshots from the sidelines ("stop being so politically correct!" "you don't even know who Betty Friedan is!"), and it became evident that we were talking more past each other than with each other. It never reached a satisfactory conclusion.

The main message I was trying to get across, though, which seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, was actually more about critical thinking than it was about men, women, blogging, or politics. I may not be a world-class feminist, but I'm a pretty decent social scientist, and the social scientific literature is littered with examples of how easy it is to be wrong when you try to draw 'why' conclusions about men and women when you only have 'what' data. Harvard president Lawrence Summers found that out the hard way back in January of this year, when he spoke at a conference on women and minorities in science. Summers cited differences between boys' and girls' scores on science and math tests, arguing that the reason for these differences can be attributed to women not having the same "intrinsic aptitude" as men in these fields. In response, many scientists turned on Summers, citing scores of studies on research into gender differences on science and math tests. They argued that the differences between men and women on math tests are much less if you take into account how many math courses they've each had, and that the gap between men and women is closing over time. They also stated that it was "irresponsible and unscientific" of Summers to rely upon genetics as the sole factor influencing women's disproportionate representation in the higher echelons of math and science. Chastened, he issued a quick apology.

Another example comes from the field of psychology and child development. Early findings suggested that even as very young babies, girls tend to be more social, less active, more timid, and more nurturing than their male agemates, and little girls gravitate toward nurturing toys like dolls, while boys instead opt for exploratory and active toys like trucks. Because this disparity is present from before age one, it was long attributed to innate differences between the sexes. But then Phyllis Katz and Sue Zalk carried out the "Baby X" studies, in which the same young babies were alternately dressed in typical boy-baby and girl-baby garb, and researchers observed the behaviour of experienced parents in reaction to them. They found that the babies were more likely to be cuddled close and given dolls when dressed as girls, and were more likely to be held facing outward and given trucks when dressed as boys. And yet all of the early social psychologists had immediately leaped to the conclusion that any differences must be innate, without bothering to test for what else might be going on.

Finally, there's the example of sociolinguist Janet Holmes. A couple of weeks ago, I discussed her finding that that men tend to use 'you know' in conversation to elicit reassurance or to express linguistic imprecision, while women use it more often to address their conversation partners' knowledge. What I didn't mention then is that prior to Holmes' paper, the common wisdom in sociolinguistics was quite different--several studies had shown that women tended to use 'you know' more often than men did, and those early linguists had made the leap from that data that 'you know' must be a marker of insecurity which women use more often because they're more insecure. It took Holmes to show that linguists had been so led down the garden path by their own assumptions about men and women that they hadn't even bothered to closely examine the whys and wherefores when investigating 'you know.'

Do I think there are more male political bloggers than female ones? Well, my own cursory observations do suggest that this is the case at least for Canada, and the 2005 Canadian blog survey data that sparked my argument with Jim would seem to confirm those observations. But if you ask me about the reasons for that disparity, I have to admit that I haven't the foggiest idea. The Americans waded into this quagmire long before we did, and have come up with a huge range of speculation. Some have suggested that most women aren't comfortable with the type of discourse found most often in opinion writing. Some have suggested that many women's blogs, when political, don't tend to be purely political, and thus go unnoticed. Others have suggested that there are plenty of women bloggers, but people assume they're all men unless they write under gendered names. Others have suggested that there are plenty of women bloggers, but men don't bother reading or linking to them. Still others have suggested that it's just harder for the women bloggers to be noticed among the scores of men. But the truth is, I simply don't know. And, with all due respect, neither does Jim Elve, and neither do you.

One of the best posts I've seen on this well-worn subject is Majikthise's:

We could argue about whether our society irrationally discounts stereotypically feminine modes of expression, how to define the A-list, what percentage of female bloggers aspire to be on somebody's A-list, or whatever. We could speculate about how much of the variance in site traffic can be explained by sexism vs. social conditioning vs. sun spots vs. having a nice picture. The fact remains nobody ever offers any data to substantiate these hypotheses.
It's rare that a blog post makes me want to stand up and applaud, but that one does. All of the aforementioned speculation is just a Hindenberg-sized portion of hot air when all we've got is 'what' data. And when people try to contort their 'what' data into a 'why' answer, they can't help but make the same kind of mistakes that Lawrence Summers, the early child behaviour specialists, and the early sociolinguists working on 'you know' made.

Everything I've seen has suggested that Aaron Braaten of Grandinite--the blogger who put together the 2005 Canadian blogging survey--is a pretty decent social scientist, himself. As such, I'm sure he'll realize when it comes time to write his master's thesis that he simply doesn't have his hands on the kind of data that would be necessary to figure out why his sample contains more male political bloggers than female ones. But the rest of us, especially those of us standing behind the mouthpieces that blogs can be, need to be equally cautious. We need to think critically enough to realize that while we can often identify the fact that a phenomenon is occurring, we can't always explain the reasons behind its occurrence. And when we do speculate about such matters, we need to have the courage to stand up and admit that we don't have all the answers. After all, phrasing something as an open question makes it a lot more likely that someday, someone will invest time and resources into answering it.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Dirty politics

Remember all the tsk-tsking that went on during the last federal election? "Nastiest election in years," and all that? Well, it could be worse. At least we're not in New Jersey.

The dead-heat race for who will be the next governor of the Garden State, between Democratic Senator Jon Corzine and Republican businessman Doug Forrester, has seen character attacks from both sides. Recently, though, things have escalated. Rumours began flying that Forrester'd had an extramarital affair with an ex-Miss New Jersey. (When asked directly whether he'd cheated on his wife, Forrester replied: "If what you're asking is if I have sex with somebody else -- no." Thank you so much for clearing that up; I feel so reassured.) Then came the charge from the Forrester campaign that it was Corzine's camp that had started the rumours. And most recently, Forrester's campaign has released an attack ad featuring Corzine's ex-wife. Playing off of Forrester's campaign slogan that went "Doug never let his family down and he won't let New Jersey down," the quote says: "All I could think was that Jon did let his family down, and he'll probably let New Jersey down, too."

You can't make this shit up, honestly.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Defending the status quo

John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail has a terrific column today about the citizens' referendum on proportional representation set to take place on November 28th in Prince Edward Island. It's unfortunately behind the subscriber wall, so I'm going to cut just enough of the introduction so as not to anger the copyright gods.

Although NDP Leader Jack Layton was huffing and puffing yesterday, there is little chance the opposition parties will force an election this month. It would be too much to Paul Martin's advantage.

Which is why, for those who believe in the need for meaningful reform in Canadian politics, all hope lies with Prince Edward Island.

There is a lot to unpack in those sentences. Let's start with the first one. Mr. Layton, alone among opposition leaders, is not prepared to force the defeat of the Liberals, hoping instead to secure some vague promise from them to clamp down on private health care. [...]

Since the Prime Minister (though not his party) has been exonerated by Mr. Justice John Gomery's report on the sponsorship mess, and since voter resentment over such an inconvenient election date would be high, a premature vote might actually work to Mr. Martin's advantage.

Polls and talk on the street suggest that, whenever the election is held, the Liberals will hold on to their minority government. If the Conservatives form a minority, it will be unstable and short-lived.

Which brings us to the momentous decision facing the voters of PEI.

Premier Pat Binns has picked Nov. 28 for a plebiscite on electoral reform. If a majority of electors on the Island vote Yes, the province will be the first to ditch its first-past-the-post system in favour of proportional representation.

A Yes is far from certain, because Mr. Binns has set the bar high: 60 per cent of voters must endorse the proposal, with majorities in 60 per cent of the ridings. Only a quarter of the polling stations usually available during an election will be open, and there are no other votes scheduled that day. (Referendums and plebiscites typically piggyback on municipal or provincial elections.) Mr. Binns has also warned that he won't be bound by a Yes vote that is accompanied by a low (but unspecified) turnout.

The word from the Island is that, if the vote were held tomorrow, the Yes side would lose. If that happens, it will be a shame. Because PR's time has come, even though it is most needed where it is least likely to be tried: in Ottawa.

The Liberals are vehemently opposed to electoral reform at the federal level, for the simple reason that they rightly believe it would destroy their party. Representation in the House of Commons based on the percentage of the vote obtained by each party, rather than on pluralities obtained in each riding, would inevitably produce coalition governments, though ones that are likely to be more stable than the month-by-month minority government we have had since 2004. As well, proportional representation weakens the hold of political parties on the essential emollient of patronage. And patronage, as a wiser mind has already observed, is about all that's holding the Liberal Party together right now.

Many observers predict that a move to PR would permanently shatter the Conservative Party into two or three components, based on region and ideology. It well might, but it would also lead to the demise of the Liberal Party, which is already split between social liberals and fiscal conservatives, between Chrétienites and Martinites, between the Quebec wing and the rest of the party.

If Prince Edward Island sends us down the road toward proportional representation, there could be six or eight parties in the House one day, with the governing coalition of the Liberal-Conservatives, the Parti Fédéraliste du Québec and the Greens holding sway against the Bloc Québécois, the Western Reform Party, the NDP and the Polygamists.

It may sound wild. But for those who defend the status quo, one question: How can you?
Now it's your turn. I challenge anyone out there to answer Ibbitson's last question, rephrased as such: Why would it be a bad idea to institute some form of an electoral system based on proportional representation in every province across the country, as well as on the federal level?

Please, stop to think before responding. I'm not interested in gut reactions of "It just wouldn't feel right" or in appeals to tradition, or even in anecdotal datapoints about what's gone on in specific elections in particular countries that may or may not bear any resemblance to the situation in Canada. What I am looking for is an argument based on our knowledge of systematic differences between electoral systems based on proportional representation and those based on the current first-past-the-post system. I want to hear a clearly justified set of reasons why a switch to a system based on proportional representation would necessarily have a negative effect on Canada. Not on a particular political party--on the country.

I look forward to people's posts and comments.

For those of you who might not be as well informed as some others, here are some links to get you started (I've chosen this list to be as comprehensive and as unbiased as possible, but please don't take my word for it; google around on your own. And read some books on electoral systems if you can get your hands on them. There are some good ones.):

Quick overview of different kinds of electoral systems and a list of countries using each

A basic overview of how First Past the Post works

Another description of First Past the Post, as well as a list of its most clearly understood advantages and disadvantages

Wikipedia's entry on proportional representation and on first past the post

An overview of voting systems, sponsored by the Administration and Cost of Elections project

The UK's Jenkins Commission's slide show on electoral systems

Case studies of electoral reform and a discussion of electoral reform families, from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance's page linking to articles on proportional representation vs. first past the post

A review of David M. Farrell's Comparing Electoral Systems

The abstract for an edited volume called Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? and links to its contents

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Scooter, you little devil!

As some of you may have surmised, I count journalism and media criticism among my many interests, so I've been following the U.S.'s Judith Miller saga for months. For those who haven't been paying attention to the latest twists and turns, her wikipedia entry provides a summary of this classic tale: Girl (Miller) meets boy (Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's now former chief of staff), boy feeds girl information about the name of an undercover CIA agent, girl gets in trouble and goes to jail for refusing to disclose sources, boy writes girl a truly freakish letter in jail full of purple prose, girl gets let loose and changes her mind about source-disclosing, boy gets indicted for perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements to the grand jury.

I'm not sure what it says about me that I haven't said anything about the Miller/Plame/Libby/Rove fiasco up until this point, but still feel moved to comment about the revelation that Scooter Libby is the author of a dirty novel published in the '90s. But alas for those who were already traumatized by his butchering of the English language in his letter to Miller in prison ("Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work—-and life."), it actually does seem to be the case. As the article points out, Libby is in fine company among conservative American public figures turned writers of erotica--everyone from Dick Cheney's wife Lynne to stuffy right-wing columnist William Safire has already been there. But it seems Libby's novel is special. While many of the others tend to be more, shall we say, circumspect about the "dirty parts" in their stories, Libby's is apparently downright blatant, including homoeroticism, incest, and even zoophilia.

Who says the Religious Right doesn't know how to have fun?