Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Layton-May-Dion dinner

You know, I'm a partisan New Democrat, but I really don't understand what the problem is with the whole Layton-May-Dion dinner. The concern seems to be that it's part of some kind of effort to ambush Layton into a "stop Harper" non-compete deal between the three parties that would give the Liberals the upper hand and disenfranchise NDP and Green voters in select ridings. But it might well be something less sinister, and Jack will never know until he bites the bullet and takes the meeting.

Besides, if it does turn out to be that sinister, Jack has the perfect response:

"I'm afraid I can't do that, folks. See, the thing is, I believe that a healthy democracy gives all voters the chance to vote for the candidate, party, and policies they most agree with, rather than disenfranchising voters in select ridings where someone else is deemed the best chance to 'stop Harper.' I'm not against cooperating with you two, but that cooperation has to happen in Parliament, after the voters have had a chance to have their say.

But the thing is, there's something we could cooperate on to make sure our political spectrum continues to reflect the diversity of political opinion in Canadian society rather than forcibly whittling it down. Elizabeth and I are already in agreement about changing our voting system to one based on proportional representation, and that agreement is reflected in our respective party policies. How about you, Stéphane? I can't help but notice that there's nothing about that in Liberal party policy, and that puzzles me. After all, if you're really interested in working together and not just in trying to sweep your rivals aside, then it only makes sense that you'd want a voting system that requires cooperation in parliament instead of the current antagonism.

I also can't help but notice that you've been musing lately about the possibility of changing to a "preferential ballot," which leaves open a bunch of questions about exactly what kind of voting system should be behind that ballot. See, if you mean the Single Transferable Vote system, then you're in line with me and Elizabeth about proportional representation, and that's just great. But the thing is, Stéphane, if what you mean is the Instant Runoff Voting system, then I have to say I'm terribly disappointed. That system isn't proportional, and it would mean narrowing our diverse political spectrum down to two large parties known as the Conservatives and the Liberals. I'm sure Elizabeth can't agree to that, and neither can I.

You've spent the past twenty minutes talking about cooperation and compromise, though, so I'm sure Elizabeth and I can change your mind. Surely we can agree that we'd all prefer a system that would allow us to work together in parliament, once the voters have given us the amount of power they're prepared to see each of us have. That means proportional representation. So how about taking it to your caucus, Stéphane? If you put it in the platform, it'd go a long way toward reinforcing your sincerity when it comes to talking about cooperation and compromise. Not to mention the fact that we could then actually make some of those changes after one of us wins the next election!"

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Those exotic Canadians!

Sick of feeling like the U.S. gets all the entertainment attention while Canadians are forced to send their best and brightest to Hollywood to make a living? Well, cheer up. There is no longer any reason for that age-old Canadian inferiority complex--not now that the U.S. has launched a reality show about Canadian truckers who drive on winter ice roads.

Learn more about this EXTREME TRUCKING! Follow six extraordinary Canadian truckers as they RISK THEIR LIVES to drive fifteen miles an hour to provide sustenance to REMOTE AREAS like DIAMOND MINES! Watch their "health insurance" [sic] cover their TWELVE THOUSAND DOLLAR MEDICAL BILLS in entirety when they get injured! Hear the show's THEME SONG, "Livin' on the Edge" by Aerosmith! Buy the first season in a complete DVD set!

That's it, people--Canada has finally arrived.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Canada Elections Act

Apparently, the Conservatives have introduced a new bill that would "force all voters — including veiled Muslim women — to show their faces for identification before being allowed to vote in federal elections."

I'm sure there will be many rants about this, but from me, just a question: doesn't this effectively disenfranchise everyone voting by mail? Including, say, all military personnel serving in Afghanistan at the time of an election?

[Update: Apparently, I'm not the only one wondering this.]

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What makes for an effective opposition in a minority parliament?

Last winter after their leadership convention, the Liberals were filled with bluster. Every action they took dared Harper to call an election. After a while, people started accusing them of blindly knee-jerking to oppose everything Harper proposed--but their high polling numbers and the smell of power continued to compel them.

The NDP, on the other hand, tried something different. Instead of simply ranting about the Conservatives' bad Clean Air Act, they demanded that Harper send it to an all-party committee. The Liberals ranted and raved, accusing the NDP of "propping up the Tories," but I supported what the NDP was doing then--in contrast with the way the Liberals were behaving, they showed evidence of actually understanding how minority parliaments were supposed to work. And even though the resulting legislation was deep-sixed when the Conservatives prorogued parliament, I'm still glad they tried.

See, an effective opposition in a majority parliament is about making strong arguments against what the government is doing in order to make sure those opposing perspectives remain a current part of the national discourse. But in a minority parliament, an effective opposition is about using your leverage and your powers of persuasion to moderate the government, to make its legislation a little more palatable to you before it passes. And while the NDP may have been doing this last winter, nobody is playing that role at all so far in the current session.

Granted, when the Liberals decided to prop up the government by not voting down the Throne Speech, they paid lipservice to the "we want to make parliament work" meme. But the way for an opposition party to "make parliament work" in a minority government situation is to do the negotiating necessary to create joint opposition amendments that the government might be able to tolerate. The Liberals won't touch that with a ten-foot pole. Because they're not willing to share the spotlight with anyone, they would rather give up entirely on trying to be a strong opposition force and simply give Harper a free pass until the next election.

On the other hand, the NDP and the Bloc aren't doing much better. The Conservatives clearly want to govern, but given the reaction of the NDP and the Bloc to the Throne Speech, those parties are just as clearly willing to go to an election now if it comes to that. But instead of using the leverage that comes with that position to exert appropriate pressure on the Conservatives, they've taken on the Liberals' former role of knee-jerking into blustery "Harper bad" stances. With the NDP and the Bloc behaving like the opposition is supposed to behave in a majority government, and the Liberals acting like they're part of that majority government, all three opposition parties are essentially giving the Conservatives the single-party majority they've been coveting.

[Update: One request. Can we go with individual opinions only in the comments, please? I mean seriously, if you can't refrain from hyperpartisanship, it's not like there aren't plenty of other posts you can comment on instead.]

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

It ain't over 'til it's over

So the election speculation is done with, right? At least for now?

Mwahaha. That's what you think.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Jason Kenney: oh, how quickly those principles crumble

Jason Kenney, Member of Parliament for Calgary-Southeast, is currently serving as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity. It's a job that comes with the benefit of an extra $67,600 in salary per year, not to mention a pretty snappy title for a guy who's not even forty yet.

What does a Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity do, you might ask? I honestly wasn't sure. After googling around for quite some time and getting progressively less enlightened, I finally stumbled upon the first link above. There, I was pleased to see the "portfolios" link with the subtitle learn about Secretary of State Kenney's responsibilities. Alas, when I clicked, all I found was the word "Multiculturalism," leaving me even more baffled than when I'd started.

Today, though, my fellow oxymoron over at Accidental Deliberations has finally put his finger on what it is Secretary of State Kenney does with his time--apparently, he is responsible for getting more ethnic minorities to vote for the Conservative Party. It might be interesting to get the opinion of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation on what they think of that rather partisan use of taxpayer funds--if it weren't for the fact that Kenney used to be their leader.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Half of Canadians support national referendum on PR: poll

I'm about to flagrantly violate copyright and cut and paste an entire piece from the Hill Times from this morning. (This is because they way they use javascript makes it impossible to link directly to individual pieces. I have nothing but respect for the Times, though, so if this rubs someone over there the wrong way, they should drop me an email and I'll pull this post.)

I have two things to add to it, though. First, I can't let the wording stand that "a system of proportional representation would effectively eliminate Canada's tradition of majority governments." As I have stated before, most governments produced by voting systems based on proportional representation are majority governments (majority governments consisting of more than one party) and there is no reason to think that this would be any different in Canada.

Second...what can I say? This is simply an extraordinary result. Not just in light of what happened in Ontario last week, but overall. See, the battle all electoral reformers face consists of a) getting people to make the connection between their overwhelming distaste with the way politics works in Canada and the voting system that makes that possible, and b) showing them that there's a tried-and-true alternative used in most of the democratic world that would get rid of a lot of the things they don't like. Some days I'm not even sure these goals are attainable without giving every Canadian the same opportunities to live abroad that I've had. Reformers keep explaining and explaining until we're blue in the face, though, and although sometimes it feels like shouting into a void, this poll is saying that we've had an effect. Extraordinary.

Anyway. Shutting up and turning the floor over to Simon Doyle from the Hill Times, now.

Half support national referendum on PR: poll
Only one-third of Canadians are satisfied with how Parliament works, says a new poll

About half of Canadians support holding a national referendum on changing Canada's electoral system in the next general election, and 45 per cent say that in such a referendum they would vote in favour of proportional representation, shows a wide-ranging new poll on Parliament.

The poll, conducted by Innovative Research Group for The Hill Times, comes on the heels of a failed referendum on proportional representation held in the Oct. 10 Ontario provincial election, in which 63.1 per cent of voters supported the existing electoral system and only 36.9 per cent voted for a system of PR called Mixed Member Proportional.

"A lot of people are looking at PR as dead in Ontario right now, whereas it may just be sleeping," Greg Lyle, managing director of Innovative Research, said in an interview. "The rejection of this particular proposal for PR in Ontario is not the end of the road for change. It just illustrates the challenge in change because it's hard to get a majority in any specific proposal."

The poll shows significant support for a system of proportional representation in Ontario and Quebec, where, respectively, 46 per cent and 52 per cent said they would vote in support of PR if a national referendum were held in the next general election. Still, such levels of support are short of the "super majority" required in recent referenda on the electoral systems in B.C., P.E.I., and Ontario, all of which required 60 per cent majority votes to change the existing electoral systems.

The poll shows a large degree of dissatisfaction with the function and structure of the Canadian Parliament. In total, 41 per cent of respondents said they are dissatisfied with the way Parliament works. Thirty-five per cent said they are satisfied and 21 per cent said neither.

The poll asked respondents whether they believe the structure of the House of Commons allows MPs to represent communities effectively, to which 59 per cent said the structure is not effective and 35 per cent said it is (only four per cent said it is "very effective" and 31 per cent said "somewhat effective").

"It doesn't pick up the role that the MP plays as ombudsman for the community, probably because, although they work like crazy in their constituency offices every weekend or whatever, only a small number of constituents actually benefit from that or see it or go in and buttonhole MPs about things," Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said in an interview. "Once elected, the member of Parliament is representing the community."

Prof. Clarkson suggested that Ontarians may have rejected the MMP proposal because they want strong local representation and did not like the idea of generating "list" members in the legislature to be selected by political parties, as the MMP system proposed. However, Prof. Clarkson acknowledged that momentum for some form of PR seems to be growing.

"It's on the agenda now," he said, adding that effective lobbying has helped identify electoral reform as a priority. "It may be like the Quebec referendum. It'll keep coming back until they win."

When asked whether there should be a national referendum on PR in Canada's next general election, 48 per cent said yes nationally, 32 per cent said no, and 20 per cent said they don't know. When asked how they would vote if a such referendum was held, 45 per cent said they would support a system of PR, 28 per cent said keep the current First Past the Post system, and 27 per cent didn't know.

Innovative Research Group surveyed 1,296 Canadians on a national panel between Oct. 4 and 10. The poll is considered accurate within a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Respondents were not impressed with the jobs their MPs do in representing the views of their communities in Parliament. Sixty-one per cent said MPs are not effective at representing their communities' views and only 35 per cent said they are effective. However, when asked specifically about their own member of Parliament, the number was slightly less negative, with 54 per cent saying their MP is not effective in representing the views of their community and 35 per cent saying their MP is effective.

Prof. Clarkson said that "ruthlessly negative" advertising by political parties is contributing to the negative public view of politicians and their work. He said opinions of politicians are low, with call-in radio shows, for instance, heaping dislike and scorn on elected officials. "It's unjustified given how hard they work and how little corruption there is, but the negativity about individual MPs may be connected to that," he said.

In a report released this month by the Public Policy Forum, one expert describes Parliament as a "media circus," in which MPs are inexperienced legislators who do not fully understand the system and feel as though they have little influence in government decision-making.

The report says that MPs in the backbenches of government are frustrated by their feelings of powerlessness and marginalized by control over caucus by the Prime Minister's Office. Government MPs have a lack of influence in the system, and can do little but become increasingly partisan and vocal in the House of Commons, House committees and the news media. The result is that MPs add to a lack of decorum in the House but little to policy formation.

"It was observed by a number of leaders that the system will continue to deteriorate until the current Westminster model is capable of providing a more substantive role for Parliamentarians in policy making," the report says.

Poll respondents said they prefer majority governments when they are led by the party that they voted for. When asked whether they prefer majority or minority governments, 37 per cent said minority governments, 20 per cent said majority governments, and 38 per cent said it depends on which party forms the government.

A system of proportional representation would effectively eliminate Canada's tradition of majority governments, which are normally formed with less than half the popular vote. A national system of PR would elect parties' MPs to House in the same proportion as the popular vote won by each party, greatly reducing the chance of electing majority governments. The system would make minority and coalition governments the norm.

Prof. Clarkson said that support for minority governments tends to come from the centre-left of the electorate, because minorities have historically given the balance of power to parties such as the New Democratic Party or its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. "That was an implicit theme in the referendum in Ontario. Maybe it wasn't even realized, but had we brought that in, it would have put the NDP in a position of power for the foreseeable future," Prof. Clarkson said.

The poll also found that only 39 per cent of respondents voted for their current MP. Forty-six per cent said they did not vote for their sitting MP.

If IRV is the answer, you've lost sight of the question

During the Ontario electoral reform referendum, a number of people--nearly all of them Liberals--kept popping up to say that they didn't like the system the citizens' assembly proposed, but that they really liked a different reform called Instant Runoff Voting (or IRV) instead. And since the rejection of Ontario's proposed MMP reform, these voices have only gotten louder.

What is IRV? Although originally created for single-winner elections like those that elect mayors or presidents, this is the system Australia currently uses to elect its House of Representatives. It is also known as Alternative Vote, or AV. In this system, voters receive a ballot on which they have to rank-order their preferences. If no candidate receives a majority of first choices, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and ballots cast for that candidate are redistributed to the continuing candidates according to the voters' indicated preferences. The result is a system which, when it is used to produce legislative bodies, tends to reduce the full spectrum of political choices to two large parties, like you tend to find in Australia (or the U.S.).

But if you think IRV is the answer, you've lost sight of the question.

Let's back up for a moment and remember what the problems are in Canada that electoral reform is supposed to fix. Our current voting system of first-past-the-post is designed for places that have a clear two-party reality--and it reinforces that reality by preventing alternative choices from gaining a toehold. But over the last few decades, Canada has managed to defy those odds and develop various alternatives to the Big Two. This means that what we have right now is a multiparty reality held hostage by a voting system designed for a two-party reality.

Now, if this were a simple matter of unfairness toward small and midsize parties like the Greens and the NDP, the issue might not gain much traction. But the thing is, this disconnect between our political reality and our voting system leads to weird artifacts such as "majority" governments that get as little as 37% of the vote (and therefore only represent 37% of the voters), and which sometimes even achieve this dubious status without winning the most votes. This doesn't happen in a two-party reality, but because we no longer have a two-party reality and haven't for a good long time, the voting system has stopped functioning normally. This affects not just small and midsize parties, but everyone. And if we want to avoid those weird artifacts, we need a new system that is built for our new multiparty reality and truly accounts for the full spectrum of choice available in that reality.

Any system based on proportional representation (i.e., systems that make sure every vote ends up counting toward electing someone) would address these problems. IRV, on the other hand, because it is yet another system that's designed for an essentially two-party reality (although perhaps one with a small handful of tiny parties), would address the problem of...I'm not sure what, honestly. The Conservatives being in power sometimes, maybe? It certainly would solve that little "problem" either federally or in Ontario--because the Liberals are the second choice of a lot of Conservatives as well as a lot of New Democrats in both places, they would be the clear beneficiaries of an IRV system. And as a system that severely punishes any parties but big, established ones, it might even solve the "problem" of the existence of small and midsize parties, too.

But here's the fly in the ointment: while that scenario might be Jason Cherniak's wet dream, it's not exactly one that would accurately represent the choices of most Canadians. There's a word for that: undemocratic. Not to mention the fact that replacing an outdated voting system that's making problems for us with a newfangled voting system that makes those problems even worse is a pretty ridiculous idea.

If you really like the idea of a ranked ballot, though, you're in luck--there's a way of achieving that while still keeping the element of proportional representation that we need to fix the disconnect between our multiparty reality and our two-party voting system. The Single Transferable Vote system, or STV, came within three points of meeting the 60% threshold necessary for adoption in B.C. in 2005. And because it came so close, B.C. is getting a second kick at the STV can in conjunction with the next provincial election in May 2009, with assurances that there will be better financing for education this time around. (If this idea appeals to you, you can get involved with B.C.'s push to change the system over here.)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Yankees = Liberals

(This one's for L-girl.)

My adopted "little sister" Caroline over at Respect the Tek and I have a symbiotic relationship--she explains baseball to me, and I explain Canadian politics to her. Here's how it went this morning:

Caroline: The problem with the Yankees is that, well, their ownership and a lot of their fanbase really expect a World Series every year or consider it a failure.

IP: That's some serious entitlement.

Caroline: Yes.

IP: They're...the Liberals.

Caroline: Well, I mean, it comes from the fact that they have won 26 or 27 of the damn things.

IP: Yeah, the Liberals have, too.

Caroline: But okay, you have to imagine a Liberal party where, like, everyone, regardless of their leanings, agreed that various members of the party over their history were better at government than anybody else.

IP: I don't have to imagine--that's actually the case. Even the ones I call the "good Liberals" think that.

Caroline: No, I mean, not that the Liberals think they have the best people--EVERYONE "KNOWS" that they have had a high percentage of the best people.

IP: Oh, okay. In that's like that, too.

Caroline: And that 'best' can be measured and quantified.

IP: Check on that one, as well.

Caroline: It also doesn't help that their owner is nuts and really does believe that not winning = dying. Or something.

IP: And from what you've said previously, not winning also seems to mean that the team manager should be fired. Which the Liberals also think.
Come to think of it, the parallels are kind of eerie.

Caroline: Heh.

IP: I mean, people use the phrase "natural governing party" unironically.

Caroline: ...that scares me.

IP: That scares you? Try being me!!!

Activism, self-righteousness, and individual differences

Let me get one thing straight upfront: despite not being wired for outrage, I really do think activism is important. This is especially the case in areas like the environment where making people aware of alternative ways of doing things could well make the difference between the future of our species and no future at all. But it drives me up a tree (no pun intended) when activists are so self-righteous about the choices they make that they fail to take individual differences into account before encouraging other people to make precisely the same ones.

I'm talking about:

...people whose friends and relatives are all local encouraging people with aging parents in another part of the world not to fly--because refusing to use airplanes would be more environmentally sound.

...people who live in cities with adequate public transportation tsk-tsking people who live in the suburbs or in rural areas for owning and using a car--because taking the bus would be more environmentally sound.

...people who have never wanted children anyway encouraging people who really do want children to make the childfree choice--because their way would be more environmentally sound.

...people who don't take that much joy in food and drink anyway looking down their noses at the gourmets down the street who buy imported mangoes from Mexico and imported malbec from Chile--because eating local would be more environmentally sound.

I mean, sure, all of these forms of environmental activism are great, and necessary, and I applaud the people who find a way to fit them into their lives. I find a way to fit some of them into mine. But come on, can't we manage to promote our good ideas while recognizing that a minor sacrifice that rolls off the back of Person A might very well make the life of Person B immeasurably less attractive?

Friday, October 12, 2007

And speaking of U.S. politics

How about that Al Gore, eh?

I mean, regardless of what you think of him and his methods, you have to admit that going from being the butt of everyone's jokes in 2000 to an Oscar and now the freaking Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 is one of the best political comeback stories ever.


The Ontario referendum result was a major downer for us electoral reformers, there's no doubt about it. But cheer up--you only need to look south of the border for a reminder of how much worse the state of our democracy could be. No, we don't have a system that makes every vote count, but at least we still have campaign spending limits and our candidates haven't been totally Hollywoodized yet.

And after you're done with the schadenfreude, how about joining me in Vancouver for the next big step in fighting the good fight for electoral reform? Fair Voting BC is launching their 2009 referendum campaign for BC-STV with a November 10th conference and strategizing session, and the pretty darn cheap Early Bird rate expires on Sunday. And if you're actually in BC, there's even more than you can do. Ontario had only a few months for their campaign, but BC has almost two years--let's do this one right.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

MMP: Tom Kent, Andrew Coyne, and lawn signs

Tom Kent, the former principal assistant to Lester Pearson, has a great column in the Globe and Mail today about MMP.

Andrew Coyne has published a few good zingers
at his blog that he couldn't work into his official columns on MMP. The last paragraph is great, but this line is so wonderful and so true that I wish I'd thought of it myself: [MMP] wouldn't mean the end of majority governments, but the beginning.

If you live in Ontario, but you don't have a "vote for MMP" sign on your lawn or in your window, consider contacting your local riding contact for an official one or even printing out your own.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

No appointed MPPs for Ontario under MMP

You know how defenders of the status quo voting system in Ontario have been insisting that at-large or party-list candidates will mean "appointed MPPs?" Well, as of today, all three of the major Ontario parties have stated that they will not appoint list candidates, but elect them through democratic processes. Anyone who is feeling cautious about voting for MMP because they're afraid candidates could be appointed can now rest easy.

This commitment transforms an already pretty darn good MMP model into a great one. Anyone at all should be able to vote for this now.

See also here, here, here, and here. And for a wonderful piece debunking this myth even before this commitment was made by all three parties (on the basis of how things actually tend to work in other jurisdictions with similar systems), everyone and his brother should be sure to read Andrew Coyne's column "MMP would not mean appointed party hacks."

MMP wisdom from real live Ontarians

I'm sitting over here in Edmonton, so it's been hard for me to justify why Ontarians should pay attention to my support of MMP in the October 10th voting reform referendum. But there's been some really great stuff coming out of Ontario, too. Here are just a few of my favourite examples:

Why our current system is bad:
Andrew Coyne
James Bow
Rick Salutin

Why MMP would be a lot better:
Ari Daigen
James Bow
Davey from "Davey's Politics", and again.

Correcting the misinformation supporters of the status quo are spreading about MMP:
Andrew Coyne
John Baglow, and again.