Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Why your rejoicing might be premature

Okay, so much for silence until the recounts are all in. At the risk of having my idealist card taken away from me completely, I want to talk a little bit about why the final seat count (Liberals 135, Conservatives 99, Bloc Quebecois 54, NDP 19, Independent 1) isn't the joyous occasion some of you are making it out to be, and why the alternate outcome of a Conservative minority might actually turn out to have been preferable. I may be wrong (and I sincerely hope I am!), but I feel that it has to be mentioned, even though I'll probably make myself sound like a hopeless curmudgeonly pessimist who isn't satisfied with anything short of her ideal scenario of a Liberal-NDP coalition government.

First, the misconception a few of you have brought up (and which you all seem to share with Michael Moore, Dan Savage, and Ralph Nader) that a Conservative minority government would have signified an irreversible swing to the right on the part of the haven of liberalism north of the U.S. border. Yes, there are small pockets of conservatives in Canada, and yes, a few of them are even dreaded social conservatives, but on the whole this is not, and is never likely to be, a truly conservative country. If Canadians had given the Conservatives a minority government yesterday, it wouldn't have expressed their confidence in conservatism, it would have been the outcome of voting to punish the Liberals for the sponsorship scandal. Throughout this campaign, in poll after poll, when asked what kind of government they would prefer irrespective of how they were going to vote, Canadians said that they wanted a Liberal minority government. They tried to vote in such a way as to achieve that kind of slap to the Liberals without making Stephen Harper prime minister, and they managed it. But we have to keep in mind that if those voting strategies had failed and Stephen Harper *had* become prime minister, it ultimately might not have been such a bad thing. A slight Conservative minority wouldn't have found any allies to help them accomplish anything, there would have almost certainly been a vote of no confidence after less than a year, and the Conservatives would have had the shackles of a failed government on them in the subsequent election.

Next, the converse misconception that this outcome is a big win for the Liberals (a misconception which, incidentally, Paul Martin himself seems to be suffering from). Yes, they did much better than the pollsters and pundits expected, and yes, this does indicate that Canadians still want the Liberals to govern as long as they remain chastened. But in the long term they're still in major danger, and in fact, this may ultimately be the worst possible outcome for them. If either they or the NDP had gained just one more seat (and they almostdid), they could have formed a relatively stable coalition government, but as things stand, they can't. This means deciding everything on an issue-by-issue basis and working with not only the NDP, but with individual members of the Bloc, moderate Conservatives, and, if he stays independent, former Alliance MP Chuck Cadman. Though the strength of their minority will certainly make for a somewhat more stable situation than the slight Conservative minority I outlined above would have been, they still have the judicial inquiry into the sponsorship scandal to get through. Paul Martin now has the nearly impossible task of convincing Canadians that the sponsorship scandal was all the fault of Chrétien and his people, but without alienating any of those people, since that's done nothing but bite him in the ass so far. And he has to do all this not only while a bunch of judges are rooting around in his political past, trying to make mud stick to him, but also with no clear allies that he can stomach. I wish the man luck; he's going to need it. Unless he's got a rabbit's foot in his pocket *and* makes not even the slightest political misstep over the next year or so, the Liberals could very well suffer a similar fate to the hypothetical one I outlined for the Tories in the last paragraph. Even though Canadians aren't very conservative, they've certainly indicated here that they're willing to vote Conservative if the Liberals give them enough cause to doubt them. And in a democracy, you don't get what you wish for, you get what you vote for.

Reactions from the blogosphere:

Chris Jones from Points of Information: "Very interesting numbers and here's why."

Kevin Brennan from Tilting at Windmills: "What a difference a few seats makes."

James Bow: "Miss Clarkson, he's pushing me!"

Vicki Smith from Just In From Cowtown (a fellow American-in-Alberta, incidentally): "Each party accomplished something significant."

Sean from sean incognito: "It's been reported than 30% of electors voted not for their first choice, but for their second. I was one of these."

Andrew Coyne: "The biggest winner in this election is the Left."

Don from Revolutionary Moderation: "Saskatchewan should be a coalmine canary for the New Democrats."

Warren Kinsella: "Few people were aware of vote shifts heading into the weekend."

The Middleman: "I feel like I had sex with a gorgeous hooker last night ."

Monday, June 28, 2004

So, we had this little election today

My goodness. I suddenly feel like such a pessimist.

My problem is that once I let myself start to dream, I start to dream big, and when I dream big, I inevitably end up disappointed. So you'll forgive me if I don't have anything insightful (or even coherent) to say about this outcome. I'm not even going to spell out what the possibilities are lest I jinx a very tenuous situation; the numbers are all there in black and white for anyone to read for themselves.

In fact, I'm going to go to bed. If this is all a dream, I want at least a good five or six hours of it before I wake up.

[Update after waking: 19? 19???? What happened overnight? God *damn* it, I knew it was all a dream. I'm ready for it to be more boring now, okay?]

Sunday, June 27, 2004

How not to piss off Canadians

I often complain that Americans don't take enough of an interest in what happens north of the 49th parallel, but this time it seems that my laments have turned around to bite me in the ass. This week, with unmistakably American voices, filmmaker Michael Moore, sex column writer Dan Savage, and current Presidential candiate Ralph Nader have all called upon Canadians not to vote Conservative in tomorrow's election. The response hasn't been what any of them had hoped for; Canadian journalists have been openly hostile toward all three of them, and various Canadian bloggers have speculated about just how many Conservative votes these three Liberal endorsements have been worth. So as an open letter to Mike, Dan, and Ralph, here are three basic reasons why those comments were a bad idea:

First of all, Canadians don't like Americans telling them what to do. Really, even if they think you're pretty cool for a Yank -- and they do -- they'll just get ornery about it. They tend to find it arrogant, and I think if you stop and think about it a little bit, you'll even see where they're coming from on that score. Trying to flatter them by telling them that the American left needs Canada as a beacon of hope and an orientation device isn't going to help, either. Canadians don't care about what the American left needs. If they think about you guys at all, they mostly just feel sorry for you.

Second, when you tell Canadians not to "vote for Stephen Harper," you just sound silly. This federal election isn't a battle over who's going to become the next President of Canada. Most Canadians couldn't vote for Stephen Harper even if they wanted to, because he's only running in one tiny little piece of one city in the West of the country. Remember a little concept called "parliamentary democracy" from that political science class you took back in college? That.

Third, let me explain why, since this is a parliamentary democracy, Stephen Harper becoming Prime Minister of Canada isn't equal to a disaster of previously unseen proportions for Canadian liberalism, of either the small-l or large-L varieties. The polls indicate that whichever party wins the next election is going to be forming a minority government. If the NDP doesn't gain enough seats to form a stable coalition, then there are no realistic coalition partners for either the Liberals or the Conservatives. In Canada, a minority government with no coalition would last a year, maybe two on the outside, and then the opposition party gets to saddle them with incompetence and come riding in to save the day with a majority in the subsequent election. Would you *really* rather see that happen to the Liberals than the Conservatives? I didn't think so.

Mike, go ahead and keep hacking away at the leader of your own country. Ralph, you should keep up your efforts to promote a multiparty system in your native land. And Dan, stick with turning U.S. Senator Rick Santorum's name into a term of art for practitioners of anal sex. But leave the Canadian voting public alone if you guys want to keep your cool points north of the border, okay?

Thursday, June 24, 2004

A proportional response

In this Canadian federal election campaign, a lot of words have been exchanged on the subject of proportional representation. This is just as Jack Layton would have it, as a national referendum on just this topic is a major plank -- if not THE major plank -- of the NDP platform. Those in favour of proportional representation say that the current "first-past-the-post" system (where the candidate who comes in first simply takes the seat and all of the other votes don't count, and the party which wins of the highest number of seats forms the government) is undemocratic, and we need to usher in a system where the number of seats better reflects the relative percentages each party has taken in the general election. Opponents of proportional representation say that it isn't a system that's at all suited to a country with such local and regional loyalties as Canada, and that it's extremely valuable for each Member of Parliament to be responsible for a small and clearly defined area such as a riding. Leaving aside the fact that the parties on both sides of this argument seem more interested in having the system in place that's best for their party than the one that's best for Canada, there's a lot of merit to each of these perspectives.

What I don't get, though, is why no one on the pro side is bothering to mention in any of these discussions that it's possible to have your cake and eat it too. I present to you the German system. On a German ballot, voters get not one, but two votes. In the first vote, or "district vote," you vote for the person who you think can best represent your district in parliament. In the second vote, or "party vote," you vote for the party whose policies are most closely aligned with your preferences. Approximately half of the seats in parliament are filled by the district vote, and half are filled by the party vote. The party vote seats are then filled by regional lists of candidates chosen by the parties. In order to prevent huge numbers of small, unserious parties from gaining too much power, though, each party must "surpass the 5% hurdle," or gain at least 5% of the vote, in order to assume seats. (An exception is made for parties that field winning candidates in at least three districts but which still take less than 5% nationally. This nod to regionally important parties is particularly important in a country that was, until very recently, two countries, and this practice would seem to have obvious applications to Canada.) The result is a system that both allows for local districts to be represented by individual MPs, *and* gives each party proportional representation in parliament.

I can think of three potential drawbacks to applying the German system to Canada. The first of these is that minority governments are commonplace under such a system. Now, as someone who first grew her political roots in Germany, where coalition governments are seen as the norm and majority governments are seen as giving a scary amount of power to a single party, I don't at all view this as a bad thing. But I realize that in Canada minority governments are widely viewed as unstable, so I thought I'd mention it. Second, in practice the two-vote system allows voters to split their votes strategically among existing or potential coalition partners instead of voting for the single party they most favour. Again, not something I think of as a disadvantage, but many Canadians might well see it that way. Third -- and this is the most logistically difficult issue -- there are a lot more MPs under such a system (the German parliament has 598 seats). In theory this shouldn't be that big a deal, but in practice it would take a lot of getting used to. Office space on Parliament Hill would be at a premium. They'd have to redesign the House of Commons in order to fit everyone in. Et cetera.

Other than those relatively minor considerations, I can't think of a single problem with applying the German system to Canada. I've lived under it, and it works. In fact, it works so well that when New Zealand recently decided to switch from a first-past-the-post system to a proportional system, they decided to adopt it pretty much whole-cloth. For Canada, too, it would seem to be an ideal compromise.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Personal preferences

Everybody's talking about the federal election these days -- at work today, I had three separate conversations with decidedly apolitical colleagues about the various likely outcomes on June 28th. If you want to know about how likely one outcome is over another, well, you'll have to check out the latest numbers yourself. As for me, in lieu of astute political analysis I'm bringing you the only four possible outcomes in descending order of my personal preference:

1. Liberal minority government: This is what everybody on the left has been salivating over ever since the news of the sponsorship scandal broke. From die-hard leftists who just want a greater role for the NDP (as the partner in a presumed coalition) to small-l liberals who essentially like what we've got but want to shake up the status quo a little, we'd all be thrilled with this. Now, making it happen given the latest blows to the Liberals, well, that's another story.

2. Conservative minority government: Yeah, you're reading that right; I'd prefer a Conservative minority to a Liberal majority. Think about it: they have no coalition partners, so they'd have to work with three (or maybe four) parties who hate everything they stand for, on an issue-by-issue basis. It would stumble, it would fall. It would last a year, maybe two on the outside. It would accomplish nothing but being a fascinating spectator sport. So all of you Canadian lefties who are quaking in your boots at the thought of Stephen Harper as Prime Minister, you can relax. The biggest drawback of this outcome is the way the American left would laugh at us for moving to the right just as they're (*fingers crossed*) moving to the left.

3. Liberal majority government: The status quo. The cons: more of the same complacency, more of the same arrogance. The pros: well, with a few notable exceptions, their policies don't *entirely* suck. I mean, they've run the country for eleven years, and we haven't fallen apart at the seams. This would be the most boring outcome, but by no means the worst one.

4. Conservative majority government: Remember how I said you could relax about the thought of Stephen Harper as Prime Minister? That's unless this happens. This ... well, this you may feel free to fear. I certainly do.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Very abbreviated English debate roundup

In brief: Harper was, like it or not, the clear winner, ending up looking like the only guy in the room with any sense of maturity. Martin was the worst speaker of the four, but he didn't completely fall on his face, so there's still a race going on out there. Layton spoke well, but used the completely opposite strategy from the one I'd hoped and expected he would use: he spent most of his time attacking Martin, despite the fact that in his ideal outcome his party will be forming a coalition with Martin's. Which meant that I spent much of the time he was talking banging my head against whatever flat surface was nearest to me at the time. And finally, for Duceppe the English debate was a formality, as none of the people who are going to vote for his party were actually watching, so he got to sort of kick back and engage in his favourite sport of Martin-bashing. It was really kind of fun to watch him be so relaxed. I apologize to all of the Genuine Canadians out there who may find the very existence of the Bloc to be offensive, but I rather like Duceppe.

So, nobody crashed and burned, nobody said they were going to fuck taxes (unlike in the French debate!), and the electorate is still undecided. For people who want something more substantive and lengthy, Andrew Coyne's temperature-taking of the various punditry.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

He's back!

Oh, my. I want some of whatever Ed Broadbent's campaign team is on.