Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

How not to write poll questions, take two

Remember that cracked-out Angus Reid poll? The one showing the Liberals at 22% and the NDP beating them in Québec? Well, they've drilled down in the data a bit more to determine that "two in five Canadians pick Harper as PM," and normally level-headed conservative blogger Greg Staples is crowing over it.

Now, putting aside that Angus Reid must have been smoking something really nice the day they gathered the data for that poll, do you really think "two in five Canadians like our current prime minister" is something to smile about? Come on, even George Bush can achieve that.

What that spin on the poll glosses over is the fact that an awfully large chunk of Canadians still don't want either Harper or Dion. So a poll that makes respondents choose between those two options isn't worth the bits and bytes it's written on.

Harper's worst enemy: the Bloc Québécois

The Conservatives have been spending a lot of time bashing the Liberals and the NDP lately because those parties opposed their budget. The Bloc, on the other hand, supported the budget, so they've had to go easier on their old buddy Gilles. But you can bet that Harper knows that far more than the Liberals and the NDP, it's the Bloc he has to crush in the next election--and that's not about ideology, but about seat count. Seriously reducing the number of Bloc seats in Québec and replacing them with Conservatives is not just the Conservatives' best road to a majority--it may be the only realistic road at all.

Why? Well, it's about the way our voting system translates votes into seats. Now, the first-past-the-post electoral system is designed to magnify the seat count for larger parties and understate it for smaller ones. The result, if it works the way it's intended to, is to manufacture "majority" governments for a single party that didn't actually win a majority of the vote. This works well in political arenas that are strongly dominated by two big parties, like the U.S., or Canada before the CCF (the predecessor to the NDP):

As you can see, the actual percentage of the vote was very close in the 1930 federal election--so much so that if this had been a pre-election poll rather than the final result, the parties would likely have been polling within the margin of error of each other. But the First Past the Post electoral system did its job here, raising the percentage of the Tories' seats up past the "majority" mark and giving them 100% of the power all on their own.

However, it also works the way it's supposed to in three-party systems, as long as the smallest party attracts votes across the jurisdiction rather than being concentrated in one place:

In the most recent UK federal election, the vote was very much split three ways between Tony Blair's Labour party, the Conservatives, and the upstart Liberal Democrats. The result under their First Past the Post system is a terribly skewed election, but still one in which that system could do its job and massively manufacture a single-party "majority" government for Tony Blair.

The thing about current-day Canada is that our first-past-the-post system simply isn't working the way it's supposed to. And while part of the reason for that is the strength of the NDP--which, much like the UK's own midsized party, has shown an ability to win a good chunk of seats even with First Past The Post minimizing the impact of smaller parties--most of it is actually because of a party that got a much smaller percentage of the vote: the Bloc Québécois. You can see this easily in the results from the 2006 federal election:

Because the Bloc's vote is entirely concentrated in one region of the country, First Past the Post's artificial disfavouring of smaller parties falls apart, massively favouring what should be the smallest party in the House. This keeps those seats away from all of the national parties, and effectively removes them from the national game board entirely. Without the Bloc, the seat percentages would look a lot more like those in the UK, with a manufactured Conservative majority. But with a large section of Parliament's seats effectively set aside, the rest get split three-ways among two big parties and one medium-sized one, and nobody can manage to get a majority at all.

So Harper can and will attack Dion to keep the Liberal vote down, but there are enough safe Liberal seats across the country that he can't ever manage to squelch them completely. The same goes for the NDP, which can't ever be removed as a threat to their dreams of a majority, particularly in the West. So if Harper wants an artificially manufactured majority of his very own, those additional seats are going to have to come from the ones that the Bloc has taken out of play. And this has to happen without Harper losing any of the seats he already has in the rest of the country.

It's a lot more of a long shot than the conservative bloggers who are crowing over recent polls realize, given everything that has to go in Harper's favour without anything at all going wrong. But if the Québec election result taught us anything, it's that sovereigntist Québecers are willing to shift their votes from a sovereigntist party that's a little too far left for them, to a right-wing party that may not be sovereigntist per se, but is still willing to use some of the vocabulary. Since undermining the Bloc while suppressing the other two national parties just enough is Harper's only real chance, you can bet he's going to try the same tactic.

If I were a Liberal strategist preparing to battle the Tories in Ontario, or an NDP strategist preparing to battle the Tories in the west--or for that matter a certain well-known anglophone journalist who speaks fluent French and cares passionately about holding back the tide of the Québec sovereignty movement--I would be paying very close attention to what Harper says to francophone Québecers in the next election. And seeing to it that every word of it gets repeated in the English-language media.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Stick 'em in a room together and make them fight it out

It's hard to think of a more divided society than Northern Ireland. A centuries-old ethnic conflict has split the territory into two separate communities that also divide along religious and political lines. The division even extends to daily life--when I was there in 1992, it wasn't at all unusual for Catholics to associate almost entirely with other Catholics, and Protestants to associate almost entirely with other Protestants. Things have certainly improved since then, with an official ceasefire and a rocky yet steadily improving peace process, but there's still a long way to go.

Northern Ireland has its own parliament, but when the main political parties (which also divide pretty much entirely along the same lines as the rest of the society) failed to reach enough agreement to work together in government, that parliament was suspended. Since then, Northern Ireland has been governed directly from Westminster, but last fall, an agreement was reached to get these parties on the road toward resolving their disagreements. The deck was stacked against them--the two parties are led by Ian Paisley, an arch-conservative Protestant minister who spouts off on the evils of Catholicism from his pulpit, and Gerry Adams, a socialist Catholic who believes Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic of Ireland and who once made common cause with the Irish Republican Army. But as of yesterday, the two parties have agreed to form a coalition government and lead their people side-by-side. So think again, all of you who think Canadian politics is just too antagonistic for coalition governments--if Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein can do it, anybody can.

In fact, every time I read about this, it occurs to me that what Canada really needs is a similar process. The next time our minority parliament fails to reach an agreement on something important (like, oh, maybe climate change legislation), that parliament should be yanked away from us. We'd be told that we could get it back, but only if our politicians agreed to put aside their differences, play fair, and actually work together to get things done.

If nothing else, there'd be a lot less screaming.

The best game in town

I have nothing original to say about the Québec election--and when you've got Paul Wells to interpret things for you, you hardly need me anyway.

But I do have to say that I've been watching election returns like other people watch hockey ever since I was a wee idealistic pragmatist--in all four, five, six, seven, or eight countries I've lived in (depending on how you count them)--and I have never, ever seen as exciting an election as that one. I'm still breathless!

Monday, March 26, 2007

A look at the Conservatives' electoral reform consultation

Remember the John Ibbitson column about the Conservative sham of a "citizen consultation process" about democratic and electoral reform? You know, the stuff about how the contract was given to a conservative pollster who is an outspoken opponent of reform? Well, blogger Marginalized Action Dinosaur attended one of the weekend "Canada's Democratic Institutions" seminars that form this process, and the post he writes about the experience is a window into the process's biases. MAD is clearly a conservative himself--he writes about how he'd rather deal with an MP with similar views to his own like Garry Breitkreuz (a conservative MP from Saskatchewan) than get stuck with dealing with his own MP, Liberal Anita Neville--but that only makes his observations more damning.

After a long session on "the role of the citizen," the group eventually did get around to talking about electoral reform. However, the questions asked of citizens were either subtly or openly leading, and it's not at all difficult to see how they will elicit exactly the kinds of responses the government is hoping to hear. One example from MAD's post:

What criteria should be used to examine the Canadian electoral system (e.g. stability, accountability, fairness, simplicity, a geographic link between constituents and their representatives. Whether it produces single-party Government whether it favours smaller parties.)?
The suggested points following MAD's 'e.g.' aren't pulled out of thin air--they represent the arguments for and against proportional representation. On the surface, not a bad thing. However, these arguments are not all created equal. For example, it is empirically demonstrable that our current system results in less "fairness," i.e., the majority of votes not counting. Sneaking "stability" in there alongside "fairness," however, plants the seed that certain kinds of electoral systems are less stable than what we have now--a common myth that's not supported by the facts. Other problems: the notion of "a geographic link between constituents and their representatives" is a red herring, since neither of the alternative systems proposed for Canada would affect that. And "favours smaller parties" isn't true of any electoral system. Our current system magnifies the impact of larger parties, while proportional systems give each party precisely the amount of power already given to them by the voters.

Here's another example:

Alternative electoral systems tend to move away from single party Government. what are the plusses and minuses of moving away from the current system.
This one at least has the benefit of being true--proportional electoral systems do tend to produce multiparty coalition governments. But talking about the benefits and drawbacks of "single-party government" when even the most educated Canadians have no conception of how anything other than that would function makes no sense at all. This becomes painfully clear when looking at MAD's account of how this discussion went. As a political blogger himself, he is clearly someone who's quite passionate about politics, and the observations he makes throughout his post make it clear that he knew a lot more about these issues than most of the other people in the room. The moderator even singles him out as being "the most articulate person in the room." And yet even he manages to mix up coalition and minority governments in his contributions to the discussion--a distinction that's absolutely crucial to make if people want to be able to evaluate whether they want a proportional electoral system in Canada.

It's also worth noting that the moderator didn't correct this mistaken conflation of coalition and minority governments, and even went on to actually enhance it. For example, in a discussion that's supposedly about the pros and cons of "single-party governments," MAD notes that the moderator "pointed out that minorities are often more costly because parties are living for today." This may be true, but it has nothing at all to do with whether a government is single-party or multiple-party. We currently have a single-party government, for example. It also happens to be a minority. These are two separate concepts that it is incredibly important not to conflate in order to have an even halfway accurate understanding of the issues surrounding electoral systems. If the moderator isn't going to even correct a basic mistake like that, then what good is he?

The biases of the moderator are annoying, but far more disturbing than that is the overall way the process is designed. Most of the citizens who are invited to these events are not political bloggers like MAD, they're ordinary people who have better things to think about most of the time than the details of political institutions. There's nothing at all wrong with that--I mean, thank goodness most Canadians aren't as crazy as we are! But this basic lack of information does mean that it's essential to bring everybody up to speed before starting in on the questions. Failing to do this will, at best, make the act of questioning pointless, since pretty much no one comes into such an event already knowing enough to respond knowledgeably. And at worst, it allows just enough misinformation to linger to serve as hooks upon which to later hang anti-reform talking points.

Canadian taxpayers are paying $900,000 dollars for this process. We deserve better than this sham.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

More Cherniak logic

Well, well. Infamous über-Liberal Jason Cherniak has been spreading the rumour that, in the last election, "Olivia Chow won because NDP supporters from across the city voted early and often at different polling stations in Trinity-Spadina."

Now, funnier bloggers than I have already done the snark thing, but what nobody's touched on is just how ludicrous the substance of this rumour is.

The fact is that Olivia Chow won her riding by more than 3500 votes in 2006. Therefore, in order for it to be true that she only won because of massive, coordinated voter fraud, there has to have been a highly organized effort among hundreds and hundreds of New Democrats from across Toronto to hop from poll to poll all day and vote, again and again.

Apparently, Cherniak thinks it is possible for party insiders to:

a) determine ahead of time which NDP supporters would be ruthless enough to take part in such an effort,

b) hold secret meetings to coordinate these hundreds of ruthless volunteers at the very same time that they're also coordinating vote scrutineering and a get-out-the-vote effort among the hundreds and hundreds of much more ordinary volunteers,

c) on Election Day, send them out and make sure each of them succeeds in convincing the trained, non-partisan Elections Canada employees to allow them to vote each time they try, with partisan Liberal scrutineers standing by to watch all this happen at each poll, and

d) manage to keep all of these hundreds of people so quiet that the first rumblings of it come out in the blog of a Liberal who doesn’t even live in the riding, over a year later.

I don't know about you folks, but I'd say that if Cherniak really thinks the NDP is that organized, that cunning, that secretive, and has that many extra volunteers to spare, it goes a long way toward explaining why he hates them so much.

[Update: Cherniak has looked into the details, realized he was wrong, and apologized (to his readers, though not to Olivia Chow or her campaign team).]

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Grasping at straws

Okay, if I lived in Québec, and I had been planning on voting for the PLQ, I would be very tempted to vote for somebody else after this ridiculous remark:

Liberal Leader Jean Charest launched his final campaign blitz on Saturday by issuing a plea to Quebecers not to elect a minority government.

That outcome would weaken Quebec's bargaining position with the federal government, he told reporters in Montmagny, a town 60 kilometres east of Quebec City.

Quebec can't afford to give the impression of being a divided society in its dealings with the rest of the country, said Charest, whose party is trying to win a second term.
Let me get this straight, Mr. Charest. You're the leader of province where an anglophone journalist blamed a school shooting on the province's language laws, where a town has tried to outline a list of approved behaviours for immigrants who want to live there, and where, in a referendum on whether to remain a part of Canada, the population voted 51%-49% only a little over a decade ago. But it's a minority government that's going to make Québec look like a "divided society" in the eyes of the rest of the country?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

They mean it. They really mean it.

I get CPAC's Prime Time Politics on podcast, which means I end up listening to it a day or two after it airs. And on the way home from work today, I got to hear a great interview with NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen and Liberal MP David McGuinty that aired on the Tuesday edition of the show.

Now, I have little time for hyperpartisan rhetoric of any shade, so if you've ever seen this show, you probably aren't surprised that I regularly roll my eyes during the MP panel. It seems to be near-impossible these days for any of our parliamentarians to sit in a room together with a camera in it and refrain from slamming each other. But this time they spoke with a unified voice about the importance of working together. Cullen did mention that the NDP had been on board with this since the beginning, but he didn't waste any time slamming McGuinty and the Liberals for having dragged their feet. And rather than just turning the whole six or seven minutes into a venomous bash-the-Conservatives-fest, they both expressed doubt that the Tories would join them, but said they still hoped they would. They didn't pull any punches, but it was about more than just partisanship and a chance to toot their own horns--it was real. Which is pretty refreshing, if you ask me.

Anyway, the full interview is [here] for download.

Oh, and for any Edmonton-area locals who would be interested in hearing Cullen speak in person, he's going to be here to do a panel discussion together with Edmonton-Strathcona's own Linda Duncan on Saturday, March 31st. Cullen will be fresh from the Clean Air Act Committee's final report the day before, something Duncan can comment on as an international environmental law consultant, former Chief of Enforcement for Environment Canada, and former Assistant Deputy Minister for Renewable Resources for the Yukon government. Should be an interesting afternoon!

When electoral reform is a sham dunk

The Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson regularly gets a lot of flak from left and centre-left bloggers, but one thing's for certain--he's long been a staunch, unflinching ally of the electoral reform movement. His latest column about the all the ways in which the Conservative government have turned the electoral reform file into a sham is behind the subscriber wall, but it's definitely worth reading. Luckily for you all, your friendly neighbourhood idealistic pragmatist is willing to share just enough of it that she can't get dinged for copyright violation!

The Conservative government is interested in electoral reform, and wants to know what you think.

Yeah, right.

Electoral reform in Canada is The Idea That Almost Is. Replacing the existing "first-past-the-post" system of electing legislators with some form of proportional representation, such as most European countries use, is [...] always on the cusp of realization, but can never cross the threshold.

Federally, both the Conservatives and the Liberals prefer the status quo; they would rather fight each other for control than clutter up the House of Commons with New Democrats, Greens and who knows what other riff-raff.

But to placate the NDP in this minority Parliament, the Conservatives promised in their Throne Speech to consider the question of electoral reform.

We now know how they plan to proceed. Those plans are hilarious.

Claiming they don't want the process to be captured by special interests, the Conservatives have decided to employ what could be the very first closed-door public consultation.

They have hired pollster Conrad Winn to conduct a poll, and a think tank to convene a series of focus groups across the country. Citizens will be probed for their thoughts on the role of political parties in policy development, the decorum (read lack of it) in the House of Commons, Senate reform, civic engagement and, oh yes, electoral reform.

The call for tenders (and thanks to the NDP for digging it up) says the focus groups are to be consulted on "the electoral system (e.g. particular characteristics that are important for citizens, such as the link between elective representatives and a particular geographic area)."

Note the parentheses. Proportional representation invariably reduces the importance of geography by having some or all legislators selected from a list. Ridings are either enlarged or eliminated. So the very wording of the mandate question biases the consultation process in favour of first past the post.

The contract to conduct the focus groups went to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a conservative think tank based in Winnipeg.

Three times in recent years, the Frontier Centre has published articles from contributors that argued strongly against PR and in favour of retaining the status quo.

That doesn't matter, according to Peter Holle, the centre's president. "We're not allowed to bring our opinions into the presentation," he said yesterday in an interview. "We're there to lead the discussion, we're there to record what people think." Besides, he said, the talking points will be so general that participants won't be asked to consider specific alternative voting systems.

Jack Layton has a different view. "It's a sham, and a stacked deck," the NDP Leader said yesterday. "It really indicates that Stephen Harper is not serious about electoral reform."

In this instance, Mr. Layton hits the mark. Mr. Harper has not the slightest interest in considering the question of electoral reform. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that: He's the Prime Minister, he sets the agenda, voters judge that agenda.

But rather than simply declare that his government has more important things to attend to, Mr. Harper has authorized a Potemkin consultation.

This charade is an act of political subterfuge calculated to disguise inaction. It may furnish the government with some fabricated evidence that Canadians don't want electoral reform (but, no doubt, do want Senate reform and more decorum in the House). But the conclusions will be as worthless as the evidence on which they're based.

The government established an upper spending limit of $900,000 for this exercise. That's not much, in the great scheme of things, but every single penny of it is wasted.
I would be remiss if I didn't correct the errors in the column. First, it's not necessarily the case that "proportional representation invariably reduces the importance of geography by having some or all legislators selected from a list"--while that's true for the Mixed-Member Proportional system that the NDP and the Greens prefer, it's not true for the Single Transferable Vote system chosen by British Columbia's citizens' assembly. Second, it's also not necessarily the case that proportional representation would mean that "ridings are either enlarged or eliminated," because it's equally possible to increase the number of MPs. And third, while Ibbitson is correct that the PEI electoral reform initiative "failed," he's wrong about the British Columbia one--the 58% of the vote received by the new system was close enough to the 60% mark that the referendum will be repeated alongside the 2008 municipal election, with better financing for education and a completed set of proposed boundaries.

Despite the small mistakes, though, the overall point Ibbitson makes is 100% correct. The Conservatives don't want electoral reform, they want a single-party majority government of their very own. So they're pretending to be the champions of the issue while scuttling the whole process to make sure it can't happen. I'm hardly surprised by that sort of cynicism, but it's a damn shame. And kudos to Ibbitson for calling this government out.

[Update: John from Dymaxion World, a former student of the pollster who has been assigned to find out what Canadians think of electoral reform, provides an inside view of what the guy is like in person.]

Finding common ground

Last fall, when NDP leader Jack Layton first browbeat the Conservatives into striking an all-party committee to rewrite the Conservatives' crappy "Clean Air Act," criticism from the Liberals was swift, harsh, and frequent. Though all of the parties were taking part in the committee, deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff still dubbed it a "marriage of convenience" between the NDP and the Tories, and later accused the NDP of "propping up" the Tories through that committee's work. Never mind the fact that the NDP had voted against the government on every confidence motion--something the Liberals themselves couldn't claim--the NDP were willing to venture beyond their own partisan fiefdom, and were therefore evil, evil, evil. And the Liberals stalled and obstructed the committee's work every step of the way.

What a difference a couple of months can make.

Not only have the Liberals now finally come on board with their own amendments to the Clean Air Act; they're also now proving willing to unite with the NDP and the Bloc to try and push a joint set of amendments through. The David Suzuki foundation say they're "ecstatic," and I have to agree. If passed, these amendments would produce a multipartisan piece of legislation that includes Kyoto targets. And while the Conservative cancellation of a Tuesday meeting of the committee has led to some speculation that they might vote against their own bill and use it to trigger an election, others are suggesting that even they might be convinced to come along for the ride.

Now, while it's hard to deny that the Liberals are Dion-come-latelys on the Clean Air Act committee, I have to say that their new willingness to jump on the bandwagon has softened my skepticism about their commitment to the environment. This kind of cooperation is a political risk for any party in an antagonistic political culture like ours, but this is especially the case for the Liberals. If real progress on the environment happens under a Conservative minority, after all, it will be much harder for them to argue that the planet is doomed if they don't get back into power post haste. But those who insist that we don't have any time to lose aren't wrong, and the Liberals' willingness to take that risk indicates a real commitment to the issue that's above partisan politics. That's worthy of anyone's respect.

But as a New Democrat, I also have to say that I couldn't be prouder right now. When Ignatieff and the other Liberals were breathing down their necks for daring to even sit in the same room as the Conservatives, the NDP stuck to their guns. When it comes to an issue as crucial and as time-critical as climate change, they have proven to be the one party that can not only put aside blind partisanship, but convince the other parties to do the same. The ultimate result of all this is still up in the air, of course, but if the current parliament proves willing to pass this bill, this country could very well get some real emission reductions right away. How's that for "getting results for people"?

This is a real-world example for Canadians of how politics works in most of the democratic world, where laws nearly always get written through multiparty cooperation. Canada's a latecomer to that ballgame, but you know what they say--it's better late than never. And watching the way the parties are managing to turn lead into gold on this file, I can almost have faith that our toxic political culture could someday change.

[Update: My fellow oxymoron over at Accidental Deliberations rains on my parade by pointing out that the Liberals have introduced several last-minute amendments that are almost certain to slow down, if not outright stall, the committee's work. But I've managed to successfully resist the pull of cynicism so far today, so I'm going to chalk this up to poor planning instead of deliberate strategy. Here's hoping they don't prove me wrong by next week.]

[March 28th update: CanWest is now reporting that the opposition has, in fact, teamed up to force through major changes to the bill.]

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A reality check for Elizabeth May

Rather than try to build on her success in London-North Centre, where she took almost 26% of the vote in a recent byelection, Green Party leader Elizabeth May has instead decided to run in the Nova Scotia riding of Central Nova. What is Central Nova--other than the current seat of Foreign Affairs minister Peter MacKay, that is? Let me paint you a picture.

It is a riding where an outstanding young NDP candidate named Alexis MacDonald (I have met her, and trust me, this woman is amazing) came within striking distance of MacKay in 2006 with almost 33% of the vote. She has not yet decided whether or not to run again, but is considering it.

It is a riding where the Liberals also turned out a respectable vote in the last election, taking almost 25%.

It is also a riding where the Greens took only a measly 1.6% of the vote in that same election. It is a riding where the Greens have absolutely no on-the-ground organization, no database of supporters, no ready-made group of volunteers--nothing. In fact, as far as I can decipher, they don't even seem to have a registered riding association.

Now, I am no Green Party member, but I do think it's criminal that with more than six hundred thousand Canadians voting for them in the last election, they don't have a single seat in Parliament. But unless both the Liberals and the New Democrats agree not to run candidates against her and also rent out their respective election machines to her, Elizabeth May doesn't have a chance in hell of winning this riding. Given the two parties' successes there, I don't see why they'd do the former (especially since such a move would be almost certain to be seen by voters across the region as trying to fix an election), and they're certainly not about to do the latter.

Why on god's green earth would May make such a ludicrous decision? It's simple, really: ego. Apparently, she's decided that she'd get more media attention running against a high-profile cabinet minister (she had also been considering running against Environment Minister John Baird) than if she ran against the Liberal who beat her in November. And while it's hard to argue with her about that, what a shame it is for her party that she's decided to throw away their best chance of winning a seat on a publicity stunt.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Caught in the web of Cherniak logic

When Jason Cherniak posted the letter from NDP President Anne McGrath that announced that the NDP intended to start their own official party blogroll, I thought for a bit about whether or not I would join it. In the end I decided that if such a blogroll came to fruition, I would wish them well, but stay where I am. My NDP credentials are impeccable, but I still see a distinction between blogging partisans and partisan blogs, and I have no desire to turn Idealistic Pragmatist into the latter. I feel strongly about reserving the right to criticize the NDP if they do something I disagree with, or praise another party if they do something I think is positive. If I were part of an official party blogroll, the NDP would be more or less forced to police my blog to make sure I stayed on message, and I'd rather spare them the trouble.

Apparently, though, the Cherniak-owned Liblogs doesn't even have to be officially affiliated with the party in order to be subject to that sort of policing. Cherniak has expelled a blogger from Liblogs because a co-blogger posted the NDP's new ads. It makes a girl wonder how far he'd go if the blogroll actually were under the party's thumb: official reprimands for using a shade of red that was a bit too orange?

There's some amusement value in the whole thing, though: over at Accidental Deliberations,
the Jurist points out that by his very own standards, Cherniak is being "Stalinistic." Now, that's performance art if I ever saw it!

Friday, March 16, 2007

American publication bans

Think back to the spring of 2005, amid the heady days of the Gomery inquiry. Remember all the triumphalism coming from American journalists, conservative bloggers, liberal bloggers, and message boards alike at the very thought of a publication ban? No country that has publication bans can be considered to have a free press, they would say. Thank God that we have the First Amendment in the land of the free and the home of the brave. A few smart Canadians tried to talk sense: publication bans are about what you can print, not what you can know, they're only imposed to protect the impartiality of juries and/or out of respect for victims' families, and they're always very temporary. It didn't seem to make a dent.

Fast-forward to 2007, and the first major media reports of the secret military trials at Guantanamo Bay are coming out. Well, only sort of, because reporters have been banned from covering them. But on the National Public Radio show On the Media last week, Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg talked about what she saw back when reporters were still allowed in (various emphases mine):

They wanted us there. They went out of their way to bring in flights and sponsor trips for reporters to come in and sit at a table and watch these things. You had to sign some ground rules, and the most difficult one was if the man uttered his name in the course of the proceeding or you found out his name, you were forbidden to report it. [...]

What they were saying was we have a process, and we are going to show this process to reporters, and they're going to tell you that people come in and can make an argument. And then we're going to make a decision. And so, see, America, you can trust what we do down here because we have a process. [...]

It's pretty basic and crude. I've attended a number of these in the trailer inside Camp Delta, and it's detainee –– a prisoner in a uniform with what they call a three-piece suit, which is shackles around his arms and waist and legs, padlocked to the floor. He's sitting on a white plastic chair, and he's facing off with three military officers, and this is his chance to tell the U.S. military why they're wrong to hold him. [...]

There are no lawyers. This is a process that was created by the military to somehow resemble a battlefield status hearing. They do allow him, under certain circumstances, to bring another detainee, who will get shackled into the next plastic chair next to him to a padlock on the ground, and he can help him make his argument. But there are no lawyers. [...]

Basically, the reporter and the detainee get led into this room. You all sit in your places. He makes his argument. You take your notes. They declare the unclassified portion of it over. You leave. He leaves. Then they open up the secret file. Then they decide whether or not he's an enemy combatant. And then they make a recommendation up to Washington. [...]

And what we know is 30-some of these 500-plus were actually found not to be enemy combatants. But we don't - I don't know whether the guy I watched tell him, that wasn't me, Colonel, you've got the wrong guy, we don't know if they decided they had the wrong guy. [...]

If a guy in that chair says, you know, Colonel, they nearly drowned me and I confessed to crimes I never committed in places where I never was, we would want to write that, even if I signed a ground rule in which I am told that I'm not allowed to report it. A couple of years ago, a colonel said to me, you know, we still don't have one of those Men in Black flashy things that can erase it from your brain.
So in other words, we've got one country that has a system of publication bans in place by which they are imposed in some trials on a temporary basis, but reporters are still allowed to watch and write and analyze the court proceedings (and in the case of the Gomery inquiry, the thing was actually broadcast to the public), they just have to hold their stories for a few weeks. And we have another country that has no system at all in place (because that would be contrary to their freedom of speech laws), and so they just make it up on the fly, banning reporters from watching the proceedings or at the very least refusing to let them know the decisions or even the names of the people whose trials they're watching. And it's the first country that has an unfree press?

*backing away slowly* Of course. Whatever you say.

You still kind of have to forgive my fellow countrymen for their irrationality, though, because First Amendment triumphalism is pretty much fed to us with our mothers' milk. I talked once a while back about how it had taken several years away from the U.S. for my own knee-jerk ideological analysis of this concept to give way to a more nuanced one. We hear the phrase "publication ban" and automatically flip out. It's kind of embarrassing, when it comes right down to it.

[Update: Chester from the Vanity Press refers to this hyper-ideological free speech tenet of American culture as First Amendment Fundamentalism, and asks "what good is it doing, exactly?"]

Poll narratives

There have been some puzzling narratives weaving their way through the Canadian punditry and amateur punditry in the last few weeks, stemming from a sort of pre-election fever and fuelled by almost daily polling. I won't link to specifics, but we've all seen them. They go sort of like this: The Liberals/NDP/Bloc are in such big trouble that they're in danger of never winning another election/disappearing from the political scene entirely/rendering the sovereigntist movement irrelevant. And we've only got about two seconds to figure out why, so instead of actually sitting down and analyzing the situation, we'll just blame it all on Stéphane Dion's/Jack Layton's/Gilles Duceppe's obvious complete failure to resonate with Canadian voters.

To make things worse, each version of this narrative always focuses on one of the above possibilities, conveniently ignoring the parts of the picture that don't fit with the way the storyteller wants to view the world. Partisan Liberals will talk about how the NDP is hemorrhaging votes because Layton has dared to negotiate with the Taliban Tories on climate change legislation, partisan Tories or New Democrats will talk about how the Liberals are in freefall because they picked the wrong leader, and all sorts of people will look at the Bloc's numbers and gleefully declare sovereigntists permanently pacified by Harper's big-ticket gifts to Quebec. A reality check suggests that they're all a little bit right about the details...and yet without looking at the big picture, the overall conclusions are completely wrong.

This chart, which shows all of the various polls that have been conducted so far this month (Decima March 1st, Angus Reid March 2nd, Ipsos Reid March 3rd, Decima March 8th, and Strategic Counsel March 15th) shows a pretty even picture with a couple of blips here and there. There's no obvious trend upward or downward for anyone. And if you compare the averages to the 2006 election results, the Liberals are down a bit over a point, the NDP is down a bit over two, and the Bloc is down a bit under two. A bit troubling for partisans of any of those stripes, certainly, but hardly Titanic material, and certainly not evidence that they're all on the wrong track with leaders who need to be thrown overboard at the first available opportunity. And if you consider the fact that the Tories (who according to these same narratives are supposedly eyeing a majority again) are actually doing no better than they did in January of 2006, well, there's just not a lot to get all that worried about. Far from being in freefall, the Liberals seem to be holding their own under their new leader. The Bloc had their dip, but they're holding steady now, too. And as for the NDP, well, with only slightly lower numbers, a tonne of money in the bank, a terrific new ad campaign, and a national strategy conference this weekend, they're certainly not going anywhere.

So if none of the supposedly dying parties are actually dying, then what's really going on? Well, I don't have any hard data on this, but from talking to Green voters, I have some ideas. I don't mean the partisan Greens, who are as smug and arrogant with their 9.8% as the Liberals ever were at 45%; I mean the people who make up the couple of percentage points each that the Greens have taken from the other parties. These people aren't looking in that direction because they hate Dion's accent or Layton's moustache or Duceppe's little bonnet--they're doing it because they actually like the idea of the existence of a Green Party. They don't actually know much about the party, mind, but the idea of the party resonates with them. To these people, the Greens are a brand-new party that wasn't there before and is totally untainted by actual, you know, governing experiences, and that's kinda neat. Now, whether this vague "kinda neat" factor will be enough to bring them the kind of success we're seeing in these polls in an actual election (or for that matter, whether they will get any seats) is still an open question. But even if it isn't enough, there's no denying that there's a new kid on the political block. And this means that the old, lazy narratives of "the Liberals/NDP/Bloc have gone down a couple of points and so Dion/Layton/Duceppe must be doing a crappy job as leader" simply don't work anymore. It's a new game board.

The real story here--and one I haven't seen a single pundit or blogger try to tell yet--is that a new party is being added to the political scene and yet none of the old parties are actually disappearing from it. The Liberals, NDP, and Bloc have all sacrificed a point or two to the Greens' surge, but there's no single party that the Greens can be seen to be replacing. The three older left-wing and centrist parties may trade some of their soft support with each other every now and then, but the vast majority of their support is actually quite firm, and not going anywhere despite the emergence of the Greens as a new force. Before our eyes, we're watching the Canadian political scene transform itself from a four-party system into a five-party one. And that's pretty extraordinary.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


I came of age politically as a teenager in Germany, and a lot of my baseline political assumptions stem from that place and time. This means that I kind of inevitably spend a lot of time in this blog talking about how Canadian politics doesn't live up to some of the political-cultural ideals I embraced there. But there are also a lot of areas where the reverse is the case. And the biggest and most obvious one is something that matters a great deal to me: immigration.

While Germany has laudably liberalized its immigration laws in recent years out of a desire to attract more skilled professionals, citizenship is still based on the very outdated European "blood and soil" concept. In other words, if you came to Germany from somewhere else, then you just aren't gonna be viewed as German, no way, no how. The result? To the huge waves of immigrants who have come to the country since the postwar period, Germany may be a place of opportunity, but it isn't a second home. They can't vote, so they have no voice. Integration is difficult, leading to huge schisms between the immigrant population and the native one. Oh, and then there are the many handwringing journalists wallpapering the editorial pages with laments about the perpetual failure to raise the German birth rate--a problem that could be solved so easily simply by redefining what it means to be "German."

This is the context in which I read this wonderful speech from Canada's own John Ralston Saul, given back in the spring of 2005 on the occasion of the new Canadian embassy in Berlin. The whole thing is just terrific, but here's the part that the Germans really need to hear:

So how do you deal with high levels of immigration when what you are isn't written down, this sort of unspoken and unwritten agreements of a civilization? The solution Canadians seem to have decided upon is to create a very positive atmosphere around becoming Canadian, which then produces a desire to belong.

In other words, we look upon the idea of immigration as an invitation which carries with it the obligation. The invitation to come to Canada is an invitation to become a citizen; and we are extremely annoyed if people don't quickly become citizens. It's sort of an insult to us if they don't want to become citizens. They can become citizens after three years. Some do it after four years, most have done it within five years.

That sense that we want them to be part of our civilization is key to creating this atmosphere of belonging.

Obviously, as soon as an immigrant arrives, they have rights. But the trick is that as soon as they become citizens, they have responsibilities and obligations. If they know that the invitation to come to our country is going to involve obligations and responsibilities within three to five years, they're going to be very eager to seize them. They're going to speak out. They're going to join political parties. You may agree or disagree with some of what they'll say, and that's fine. The point is they're going to want to show that they belong and what they realize is that the invitation is conscious and intentional, not accidental or unconscious. They are chosen.
This rings remarkably true for me. I have a pretty inherent distrust of patriotism, and so I didn't really expect to feel more like I belonged in Canada after becoming a citizen. My decision to officially apply for citizenship was really more about gaining the right to vote than anything. But the process did change me, in subtle but profound ways. I'd always been engaged in Canadian life, but citizenship strengthened that engagement. I began saying 'we' when talking about Canada, without even thinking about it. And yes, I also began to feel a responsibility to this culture and society that I hadn't felt before--a responsibility to give something back to the country that had taken me on.

There's an awful lot we can learn from Germany and other European countries about things like political culture and sensible environment policies, but when it comes to immigration and 21st-century population issues, there's at least as much they can learn from us.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


I realize that it's an incredibly cheap move to devote an entire new post to linking to an old one, but hey, I figure it's my pad, and every now and then I get to be just that self-indulgent.

I wrote a post last summer that summed up how I see the Canadian left and Canadian politics in general, and in fact kind of summed up why I blog, too. Hardly anybody read it then, and most of those who did didn't seem to understand it, but it seems even more relevant in the current political context than it did then, and I still stand behind it 100%. Consider it a way of contextualizing my disgreement with Pat Martin's rephrasing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Some thoughts on Pat Martin's rephrasing

How about that? Just when I was starting to get uncomfortable with how suspicious it was that the CanWest story on Pat Martin had contained an awful lot of paraphrase of what Martin had "said" and surprisingly few direct quotations, Martin comes out and issues a clarification:

Yesterday I spoke with a reporter from the Winnipeg Free Press. It was reported I favour a merger of the New Democratic and Liberal parties. I do not. I wish to take this opportunity to clarify my remarks and clear up any misunderstanding.

I didn’t suggest that New Democrats should merge with the Liberal Party. I believe that progressives across Canada should unite behind a strong vehicle for change and demand a better government. That vehicle for change is the New Democratic Party.

That is why I have run in the past four elections for the New Democrats and intend to run for the New Democrats in the next election — whenever that may be. We need to defend the values that we believe in and I believe that under Jack’s leadership the NDP has great opportunity to grow even further.

I can hear the cynical out there scream ‘backtrack’ already. But, let me assure you. As the New Democrat MP who holds the seat once held by Stanley Knowles and J.S. Woodsworth, a pioneer of this great country and my party, my commitment to social democracy and the NDP has never been greater.

Ordinary Canadians need us to fight for them in Ottawa — to fight for their values, to fight against government corruption, to fight against corporate elites who would turn our country into their own playground.

This is the NDP that rewrote a federal budget — that cancelled Liberal corporate tax cuts to invest in education, housing and the environment. This is the NDP that’s working to rewrite the Conservatives’ lame Clean Air Act to produce environmental legislation with teeth.

This is the NDP that has more than doubled its caucus and tripled its popular vote in the last two elections, and let me assure you again: we’re just getting started.
Some will insist that this is nothing but backtracking, but I can definitely buy that this is a rephrasing of what Martin actually said to the reporter, minus a few key points. You know: Everybody should get behind the NDP and form a new big-tent party of the left, yaddayadda jameyheathcakes. And after that, he would have said the part that was paraphrased by the goons at CanWest, but which got left out of the officially endorsed rephrasing, which probably sounded something like And if that doesn't work out, then the left is in big trouble because we're splintered. Sure, I buy that he said that.

Thing is, I still disagree with him.

As I said after the last election:

Think about what it would take for [this] scenario to come true in Canada. The Liberals would collapse completely and be unable to bounce back from their internal rifts and their recent defeat. The NDP, noting the gaping hole to their right, would drift toward the centre. They'd start choosing centrist candidates--maybe even some wayward Liberals abandoning the sinking ship--and moving away from social democratic policies in their platform. After a decade or two of this, they'd be able to win over even the most centrist of centre-left voters and start occupying the territory currently staked out by the Liberals. With no party to their left, they'd have a lock on the entire centre-left and be able to vault themselves into an easy victory. Anglophone Canada would have a neat little two-party system once again.

I'm sorry, but don't want to be a part of that NDP. Heck, if I did want that, I'd join the Liberals now and skip all the steps in the middle--it would be a heck of a lot simpler, and at least there would still be a left-wing party in this country. The solution to the current problems among Canada's centre-left isn't replacing one natural governing party with another--it's electoral reform. I want to see an NDP that represents the 18% of Canadians who vote for them (or 20%, or 22%, or whatever it ended up being under a system where people actually voted the way they wanted to vote) and does it well. I want them to have precisely the amount of power the voters have given them, no more and no less. And most of all, I want an NDP that can play the role of representing left-wing voters in a parliament that requires compromise on all sides.
There's a lot that frustrates me about Canadian politics, but if I could name one thing that frustrates me most of all, it's that nobody here seems to realize just how ridiculous they sound to the rest of the world when they start going on about the lure of big-tent parties. The notion that a party needs to get (or be aiming at getting) 33% or more of the vote in order to justify its existence is such complete nonsense that I don't even know where to begin. In pretty much all the countries of the world with multiparty systems, genuinely small parties--I'm talking parties that regularly get no more than ten percent of the vote--play a role by forcing all the parties to debate their policy ideas during elections and in Parliament, by taking part in all-party committees, and even by forming part of the government when coalition conditions are right. A midsize party like the NDP can do all that and more. All we have to do is open our eyes and recognize that this country has a multiparty system--not a two-party system with a couple of temporary outliers, but a genuine, colourful multiparty system that's getting more colourful all the time. And then start acting like it.

[Update: More detail from John Ivison. Martin was definitely taken out of context and poorly paraphrased. I do still disgree with him, but this new version sounds a lot more like the Martin we know.]

Pat Martin logic

Apparently, NDP MP Pat Martin is claiming that if the NDP can't significantly increase its percentage of the vote beyond the 17% it got in the last election, it shouldn't exist at all.

By that logic, there are three German parties that need to disband, too--the Free Democrats, the Left Party, and the Greens did a whole lot worse in their last election than the NDP did in Canada, taking 9.8, 8.7, and 8.1% of the vote, respectively. Never mind that two of those parties have actually been in government in recent times--it's out with them all! And it's even worse in Sweden, where three of the four currently-governing parties are going to have to disband. And after the recently-held election in Northern Ireland, there will be only two parties left standing once Mr. Martin has his way: the arch-conservative Democratic Unionist Party of Ian Paisley, and Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA. Oh, that'll improve conditions there, I'm sure.

You know, it occurs to me that if Pat Martin is so desperate to deprive 17% of Canadians of an electoral voice, there are much easier ways to do that than going to the trouble of disbanding the NDP (and with it the longstanding provincial governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan). According to the most recent census, released today, that's a similar percentage of Canadians as the percentage who live in the city of Toronto and its surrounding suburbs. How about we just forbid those people to vote and call it a day?

[Update: Pat Martin has denied saying these things.]

Monday, March 12, 2007

You say tomato, I say tar sands

I apologize for blogging being so light lately. But if you head over to this odd little article in today's Globe and Mail, you might just catch a glimpse of someone you all know and love tolerate, hangin' out in her work clothes.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Voices of impatience and principle

Work has me far too swamped at the moment to write anything detailed for Blogging Against Sexism Day (which I have actually officially missed, but hey, I haven't slept yet, so Thursday isn't over yet, right?). So instead here are some wonderful words of wisdom about women's rights issues from Stephen Lewis, from a presentation I attended with him and his son Avi on Tuesday night. And yeah, I know there's some irony in a female blogger deferring to an old white guy on this topic, but come on, it's Stephen Lewis.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Cherniak logic

You know, I thought I was too busy to comment on the whole Robert McClelland fiasco. But when Jason Cherniak willfully murders logic, I have a tough time standing idly by:

[N]one of the NDP bloggers have a readership equivalent to me or Kinsella. I know this because a link from Robert gives me about 60 hits. When I link to something, it is more like 1000. [...] Consider why NDP blogs have such low readership. [...] I suspect that I have helped the NDP much more than I have helped the Liberal Party today.
Let's have a look at the string of leaps, here:

Observation 1: Cherniak got linked by a Blogging Dipper once, and got 60 hits.

Observation 2: Cherniak linked to one of his other own blogs once, and got 1000 hits.

Assumption 1: The discrepancy in hits couldn't possibly have anything to do with the particular posts in question, their individual authors, or the timing of said posts, but must necessarily reflect the regular readership of the blogs in question.

Assumption 2: All other blogs written by New Democrats must have exactly the same low readership as the blogger mentioned in Observation 1.

Assumption 3: The reason for this widespread low readership of blogs written by New Democrats is because the blogger mentioned in Observation 1 is an odious twit, and couldn't possibly have anything to do with the topics New Democrats choose to write about, their posting frequency, or the fact that their party gets a lower percentage of the vote than Cherniak's party.

Conclusion 1: By getting the NDP to condemn the blogger mentioned in Observation 1, Cherniak took a step toward ridding the Blogging Dippers of an odious twit.

Conclusion 2: Therefore, Cherniak has helped the entire New Democratic Party, despite the fact that said party has no link at all to the Blogging Dippers, and the fact that the odious twit in question was never even a member of the party.

All I can say is that it's a very good thing Cherniak became a lawyer and not a doctor.