Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, December 18, 2006

We interrupt your regularly scheduled longwinded blog to bring you this bit of silliness

Everybody remember U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown? The guy who was chastised by...oh, just about everyone...for his handling of Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005? Well, according to Senate testimony that he gave earlier this year, the reason for his gross incompetence turns out to be that he was, erm, otherwise occupied during the crisis. With his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Admiral Allen was then given the wherewithal to leave, to go do things, to go -- if he needed to be in New Orleans, to go to New Orleans, to be able to go to Jackson, Mississippi, to be able to go wherever he needed to go. I was literally constrained by Secretary Chertoff and told to stay in Baton Rouge after my first trip to Jackson, Mississippi. My hands were tied by him.
A few days later, he also elaborated on these twisted and prurient sources of his negligence in a CNN interview (you might want to cover the kids' eyes for this one):
It was balls to the wall. I was literally constrained by Secretary Chertoff. And I was certainly screaming and cussing at people.
While I does occur to me to wonder why the man would voluntarily make such *cough* private matters so very public, I nevertheless commend him for finally explaining the reasons behind his tragic mishandling of the situation.

(Ahem. All of which is to say that IP is--for the next two weeks or so, at least--on holiday. Every junkie needs to detox occasionally, and that goes for us political ones, too. See you in January.)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Dual citizenship: "loyalty," "convenience," or an acknowledgement of facts?

You may not have noticed if you're not an immigrant yourself, but the big national discussion about dual citizenship that has culminated with Stéphane Dion has actually been going on for over a year now. It began with Michaëlle Jean's appointment to Governor-General, continued with the evacuation of Lebanese Canadians from Lebanon over the summer, and raised its ugly head once again this fall when Stephen Harper's Tories floated the idea of doing away with it. In each of those discussions, people who are uncomfortable with dual citizenship have brought up two words that have puzzled and frustrated me: loyalty and convenience. But it wasn't until this week that it gelled for me why those sentiments feel like such a betrayal of Canadian values.

See, for me--and, I suspect, for many other immigrant Canadians--citizenship is neither a matter of loyalty nor a matter of convenience. My Canadian citizenship is an acknowledgement both of the steps I've taken to become a part of this culture and the way that culture has rubbed off on me and gotten under my skin. My American citizenship is an acknowledgement that because I was born and raised in the United States, the idealistic pragmatist you see before you today spent most of her formative years being influenced by that culture. And while it may be true that those citizenships come with certain rights and certain responsibilities, those rights and responsibilities are not what citizenship is. Citizenship is no more and no less than an acknowledgement of the fact that one is an X.

What makes a rejection of dual citizenship so offensive to me, then, is that it tells me that I can't be both X and Y--I have to choose. But this is not a simple matter, because the fact is, I am both. In every sense of the word, I am Canadian and American. Giving up my dual citizenship wouldn't change that; it would only force me to pretend it wasn't the case for the sake of appearances. And that forced pretense would go against everything Canada claims to stand for as a multicultural country.

For years, Canadians have been telling me, proudly, that while the U.S. is a "melting pot," Canada is a "cultural mosaic"--a patchwork of cultures that all work together to form a cohesive whole. But how on earth does that ideology stand up when the supposed "melting pot" thinks dual citizenships are just fine, and the supposed "cultural mosaic" is telling immigrants that they have to pretend they're nothing but Canadian or else be branded as disloyal? It doesn't--it collapses like a house of cards. And if this country is going to start telling people they have to choose between being an X and a Y in order to be truly Canadian, we're going to have to accept the consequences of that line of reasoning and be willing to change our policies and our ideologies to go along with it.

As for loyalty, well, that’s a far more complicated matter that--at least for me--has little to nothing to do with which country's or countries' passport(s) I hold. I am fully loyal to Canadian ideals--that's why I came here in the first place. I am thrilled to have an opportunity to help realize them more fully. But here's the rub: if those ideals changed--if Canada rejected the things that brought me here and became someplace I didn't want to live--I would want to leave Canada just as I left the United States. My loyalty isn't to the passports I hold, and it's not to the land mass encompassed by the political boundaries of the place I live, either. It's to the things this country--this place that I chose--says it wants to be. And quite frankly, this big national discussion about dual citizenship has been the first thing since I came here almost ten years ago that's shaken my faith in that.

The local and the not-so-local

Two political things that are making me happy this week:

1. Edmonton-Strathcona environmental lawyer Linda Duncan has decided that she's going to throw her hat into the ring for a second time and run again for the NDP. Remember Duncan, the star candidate who even the national media took note of in the last election? Some people laugh off the thought of an NDP MP in Alberta, but with Duncan running it could actually happen--not only has the NDP shown remarkable growth over the past three or four elections, but Duncan took 33% of the vote last time. It wasn't quite enough to overcome the riding's notorious vote-splitting, but that 33% presents Edmonton-Strathcona's left-wing majority with a clear choice for the first time since...well, certainly since before I came to Canada. Especially with Duncan's new name recognition and celebrity status. And on the hipster cred front, local bloggers were invited to her announcement as members of the "citizen media." How cool is that?

2. More and more bloggers are starting to talk about the possibility of coalition governments for Canada. (In fact, it's become enough of a buzzword that I'm wishing I'd given the explanation for how coalitions work in a separate post rather than embedding it in a post about proportional representation that's harder to point back to.) Come on, mainstream media--first one out of the gate on that story gets a big smooch from me. After all, even with that very tidy little post-convention bounce that the Liberals can be very pleased with (with only two percentage points of their seven-point surge coming from the NDP and a full five percent coming from the Tories, delightfully enough), they're still not anywhere near majority government territory. And while proportional representation would be the one thing that would make coalitions inevitable, you can certainly have them without it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A response to Terry Glavin

Over at The Tyee, Terry Glavin has written an editorial asking for reasons to vote NDP in the next election. After all, he says, if the Stéphane Dion Liberals' policies are at least fairly decent, and they're still more likely than the NDP to form the next government, why should anyone vote NDP?

Of course, "why should anyone vote NDP" doesn't quite cut it as a realistic question. There is, after all, a large chunk of NDP voters who cast their votes based solely on
...gasp! affinity for the NDP's policy proposals. For these people, the Liberals are simply never going to be an option, just as there is a large chunk of the Liberal Party who would never vote NDP even if someone held a gun to their heads. Instead, Glavin's real question is about why Liberal-NDP swing voters wouldn't want to flock to the Liberals in droves in order to defeat Harper. And rephrased as such, it's a provocative, pragmatic question, and it deserves an equally provocative and pragmatic response.

Let me give it a shot:

When Liberals get majority governments, they don't keep their promises.

You've all heard New Democrats saying that Liberals "run from the left and govern from the right," but this is more than just partisan spin; it's demonstrably true. When the Chrétien Liberals had a majority, they promised to implement a national child care program, but didn't actually take action until years later when Martin had a minority and it looked like their government was about to fall. They promised to protect public health care, but weren't willing to put the brakes on privatization. They promised to reform our electoral system, but refused to take action on the issue when the NDP came knocking on their door with a proposal. They promised student tuition relief, but didn't act on that until the NDP forced them to do so as part of the 2005 minority parliament budget deal.

Do the Liberals keep doing this because being a big fat liar is a requirement to join their party? Of course not--they do it because they're susceptible to the pressures of governing. An elected Liberal caucus is made up of centrists, and when centrists are given a nice, safe majority, they're free to give in to the pressures from large corporations. This is why Liberal majority governments have consistently been centre-right, not centre-left, governments. And for all of you swing voters who are so convinced that a Dion-led Liberal majority would be different on this front, there's actually not a whole lot of evidence for that. When he was Canada's environment minister, after all, the policies he proposed were very different from the ones he's proposing now, when he's looking to win your votes.

The fact is, if you're a Liberal-NDP swing voter who likes the Dion Liberals' policies and wants them to be implemented, you don't actually want a Liberal majority government. What you want is a Liberal minority government with the NDP holding the balance of power--or, if you're as sick of minority governments as I am and crave some more stability, an actual government coalition. In a coalition, government policy is a synthesis of the policies of the larger party and the smaller party--a little of this, a little of that, a handful of cabinet ministers for the NDP and many more for the winning Liberals. Try to tell me that's not precisely the ideal outcome for the swing voters we're talking about.

The partisan Liberals reading this, of course, will say that they actually wouldn't be satisfied if they won a minority with the NDP holding the balance of power--they want a majority government of their very own. But wishing it doesn't make it so. Even with their rather sizeable post-convention bounce, the Liberals still fall well short of majority government territory. And those who are thinking that the bounce is only the beginning and the Liberals have nowhere to go but up are deluding themselves--parties always come down from post-convention bounces. The fact is, the NDP and the Bloc are entrenched enough by now that no matter how much the Liberals would like to claim we have a two-party system, we just don't. And with the Greens bursting onto the scene, there's even less of a chance of a majority...for any party.

So let's have a little more of that much-lauded pragmatism from the Liberals, shall we? Of course they will try for a majority--they have to--but they will fail. Realistically, unless two of the parties get it together and manage to form a long-term, stable majority coalition after the next election, the next Canadian government will be another minority. The only open question is what colour it's going to be. Which is where my next point comes in.

When centre-left progressives indiscriminately vote Liberal "strategically," they elect Tories.

There's a fascinating and maddening thing that happens again and again in Canada, partway through every federal election: Liberal-NDP swing voters who have decided to vote NDP look at the nationwide polls, see that there's a threat that the Tories could win, and decide to vote Liberal instead. The problem with this, of course, is that those nationwide percentages have precisely diddlysquat to do with who can win in each individual swing voter's riding. (That's what we call proportional representation, after all, and while it would be awfully nice if it worked that way, wishing doesn't make it so for me, either.) People like to refer to this practice as "strategic voting," but since real strategic voting would require some actual, you know, strategy, it makes a lot more sense to call it "stupid voting."

Let's take British Columbia as an example. In the middle of the 2004 federal election, the B.C. riding of New Westminster-Coquitlam was a three-way race with the NDP in front, the Conservatives nipping at their heels, and the Liberals also within striking distance. But then Prime Minister Paul Martin campaigned in the riding, waving the national polling numbers and telling voters that they needed to vote Liberal to stop Harper. The result? The NDP vote collapsed, and the Conservative candidate won by only a few votes, with the Liberals well behind.
In 2006, however, Liberal-NDP swing voters across the province learned their lesson and managed to go from stupid voting to strategic voting in a single bound. The percentage of the vote didn't change much at all--the Conservatives increased by 1%, the NDP increased by 2%, and the Liberals fell by just under 1%. But real riding-by-riding strategic voting among swing voters gained seats for not only the NDP, but also for the Liberals. Only the Tories lost seats.

So to answer Glavin's question about why Liberal-NDP swing voters should vote NDP in the next election, my provocative answer that will piss everybody off boils down to this: maybe they should, and maybe they shouldn't. Since the outcome that these voters really want is one where the Liberals win but are forced to actually keep their promises, whether or not they should vote NDP depends on the makeup of their specific ridings. If they live in ridings where the NDP candidate can beat the Tory, they should vote NDP, and if they live in ridings where the Liberal candidate can beat the Tory, they should vote Liberal.

If the swing voters we're talking about manage to use informed, riding-specific strategy next time around, they have an excellent shot at getting exactly the outcome they want--a government that will actually implement the progressive policies that they like. If, however, they instead just vote indiscriminately Liberal out of fear--even in ridings where the Liberal has little chance--then they will hurt the NDP, fail to give the Liberals all the votes they need where they really need them, and probably elect another Tory minority government in the process. It's that simple.

[Update: I'm not sure Québec-based blogger Michel Fortin is a Liberal-NDP swing voter as described in this post--given where he lives, I'd guess not--but he sure sounds like he wants the same things they want. En français.]

[Upperdate: Terry Glavin responds...and agrees. Score! *grin*]

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


When I interviewed Stéphane Dion back in September, he had this to say about whipping the vote on Harper's renewal of the Afghanistan mission:

One mistake we made was to be divided about the shameful motion that Mr. Harper decided to have about the two-years' extension to the motion in Afghanistan. We should have had a whipped vote for everyone to vote against this motion. [...] We should have voted against that as a party and as the official opposition. I'm very disappointed that this was not done.
Dion clearly believes in whipping the vote when it's necessary--i.e., when it's important to show party unity so that your opponents can't use your party's dividedness against you in a leadership race. When that leadership race is over, though, and minority rights may be riding on whether or not the same-sex marriage issue gets reopened, apparently it's not nearly so important.

Free advice for the NDP's Ottawa set

This hasn't been the federal NDP's best week. I'm hardly the sort to tell the NDP to give the Liberals a free ride when they really deserve a good slap upside the head, but right now it's the NDP strategists I want to slap. In the hopes for a change in course, then, here's some free advice for any of that group who happen to be reading:

  • Yes, the Liberals got a post-convention bounce. So what? Did you really think that wouldn't happen? Just remember that all bounces are fleeting, take it in stride, and keep doing what you've been doing all along, hammering away at Harper and the Conservatives. You were doing such a good job, and it's not as if they haven't given you any fodder lately.

  • By all means, hammer away at the Liberals, too, when they do something arrogant or misguided. But why not wait until there's actually something to criticize before you join the Conservatives in their Dion-bashing? Trust me, there will be plenty of opportunities--Dion will have a tough time selling himself as the custodian of the environment when his record as environment minister was nothing to write home about. But kicking the guy when he first steps up to the plate just makes you look power-hungry and mean. Stick with "I am looking forward to debating with him and getting to work on the issues that are important to today’s families" until Dion gives you something concrete to work with.

  • Speaking of power-hungry and mean, what was with that insane email about Dion that the backroom strategists sent to NDP members shortly after he was made leader? Referring to him as an "out-of-touch academic" without telling us a thing about the ways in which he's supposedly out-of-touch is nothing but anti-intellectual crap. Am I "out of touch" because I have a Ph.D.? Is Dr. Jack Layton? Not to mention that it's hardly credible for the backroom people to try to malign Dion in this way when Layton himself has praised him.

  • Finally, Pat Martin questioning Dion's loyalty to Canada because of his dual citizenship doesn't exactly make him look like a defender of multiculturalism. As an immigrant Canadian who holds dual citizenship with my country of origin, I am appalled by the precedent this sets. People with dual citizenships aren't any less Canadian than those of you without any direct immigrant taint, and if somebody like me decided to run for the leader of a major party, my dual citizenship wouldn't make me any less deserving.
You're not just losing the soft NDP support with this strategy, you've got party members pissed off, too. We know you've got a great alternative vision, but right now we can't wait until you go back to presenting it so that we can stop cringing. You look like you're flailing. Quit it already.

[Update: My fellow oxymoron from Accidental Deliberations is much more measured, but no less right.]

Monday, December 04, 2006

What is with our party leaders and their asses?

When I heard about Layton's Question Period slip of the tongue today--described rather succinctly over at CBC online as "The House of Commons broke into cheers and laughter Monday after NDP Leader Jack Layton dropped the first letter from the word gas"--I had to laugh and laugh. I admit it, I've got exactly the juvenile sort of humour that finds this sort of thing freaking hilarious.

What made it all the funnier, though, is the fact that during the 2006 election, Harper had his own 'ass' slip. It went largely unnoticed other than in the (now sadly defunct) CTV election blog because so much else was going on at the time, but the text of the post has been preserved over here:

The howler of the campaign so far came tonight in St. Catharines where more than 1,200 people (that's right -- 1,200 in St. Catharines!) heard Harper lead off a section of his standard stump speech with this line ...

"As you listen to the misquotes and misinformation that will spew out of Mr. Martin's office and out of his ass ..."

Or at least that's what everyone heard. It brought the house down. Even Harper's wife Laureen, standing on stage beside him, started giggling.

Now if you listen closely to the tape, he actually said:

"As you listen to the misquotes and misinformation that will spew out of Mr. Martin's offce and out of his ads."

He seemed, though, to drop the 'd' in "ads" and it came out "ats."

Harper himself didn't seem to realize what he almost said and after a brief pause where he seemed a little confused at the reaction the line got, continued on hammering away at Paul Martin -- and his ads.
The post came complete with an .mp3, which seems to have disappeared along with the post, but your trusty neighbourhood idealistic pragmatist saved a copy and has put it up for download here. It's highly recommended for the crowd reaction alone!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

How does Dion stack up?

I haven't been blogging about my preferences in the Liberal leadership race, but that doesn't mean I haven't had them. The main problem has been that my preferences were really too complicated to turn them into a nice tidy little post. Yes, I'm a partisan New Democrat, but I'm also a concerned Canadian who wants what's best for the country, and a strong believer in a diverse spectrum of partisan choices led by public servants who care about more than just their own careers. So this has meant balancing three major factors, in the following order:

What's best for the country. Like it or not, choosing a Liberal leader is about choosing somebody who has a pretty good chance of becoming the next prime minister. This means that someone whose favoured policies aren't appalling would certainly be a plus, as would someone who's more interested in serving the country than in personal gain.

What's best for the NDP. The ideal scenario would, of course, be a Liberal leader who could take a whole slew of votes away from the Conservatives without taking any from the NDP. I don't think that candidate existed--at least not in this race--but someone who had a good shot at eating into soft Conservative support and who at least wouldn't seriously damage the NDP would also be acceptable.

What's best for the Liberals. It sounds strange coming from a partisan New Democrat, but I really do care about the renewal of the Liberal party. I believe in true voter choice above all else, and the "ill health" of one of the three major parties has seriously limited voter choice for those on the centre of the spectrum, sending an awful lot of them into Stephen Harper's waiting arms. Also, if the Liberals don't fix some of the things that ail them, and they get into power anyway, that's not good for any of us.

So now that we know it's going to be Dion going up against Harper and Layton in the next election, I'd like to evaluate how he stacks up on those three factors.

Dion's strengths:

I have thought for some time that, of all the major Liberal leadership candidates, Dion would be the clear choice in terms of what was best for Canada. He has enough integrity that Harper was comfortable consulting with him before bringing forward his Quebec as a nation motion, and Layton, too, referred to him as "a man of principle and conviction" in the middle of a partisan convention. His policy preferences, as well, while not ideal, would be a welcome change from the direction Harper is taking us in.

In terms of what was best for the NDP, Dion wouldn't have been the top pick (that would have been Ignatieff), but I've long suspected that he would pose more of a threat to Harper and Duceppe than to Layton, and this poll seems to suggest that as well.

Finally, there are also at least a few advantages to Dion in terms of repairing the damage to a rather broken Liberal party. He's someone who served in both the Chrétien and Martin cabinets, and there was certainly plenty of evidence at the convention today that he can start to smooth over the rifts from their feud.

Dion's weaknesses:

After I interviewed Dion back in September, I expressed a number of concerns about him. The most damning of these was about his inability to account for either the broken Liberal policy promises or the ubiquitous sense of Liberal entitlement:

Given the undeniable fact of the booming oil and gas industry, though, it's all the more essential that we get someone into the prime minister's office who's willing to follow through not just on voluntary targets, but on tough regulation. Dion's proposed plan would go a long way toward that, but all we know is that the last time he had the chance to regulate, he didn't go nearly far enough. What I needed to hear from him during this interview was an acknowledgement that previous Liberal governments should have done things that they didn't do, some explanation for why they didn't do those things, and an outline of why a Dion-led government would be different. His answers fell short on all of those points. [...]

Certainly recovery from the Chrétien-Martin civil war and presenting a positive vision for the future would be two huge steps toward repairing the damage to his party. But I think most of us on the left would tend to agree that it doesn't get at the things that concern us most about the Liberals. The new Liberal leader, whoever he ends up being, is also going to have a tough job repairing the public trust. This violated trust comes not just the sponsorship scandal, but also from the broken promises I addressed in my last point, and perhaps most importantly, from a governing style that made them appear arrogant, complacent, and like they thought they were entitled to a majority government with no real effort. I tried to give Dion every opportunity to address these issues, but he didn't.
My concerns about these issues have only grown since that interview. While he was vaguely cagey and defensive with me in September, at the leadership debate in Montreal a month later, he positioned himself outright as the defender of the Liberal record. If you wanted renewal of the Liberal party--REAL renewal, with all the soul-searching and accounting for mistakes and reforms that would come with that--Dion was never going to be your man. And relatedly, while Ignatieff was willing to step in during that debate and admit that the Liberals "didn't get it done" on the environment, Dion's response was to get visibly angry and counter that Ignatieff "didn't know what he spoke about." This leaves me with little evidence that, when push comes to shove, Dion will actually be willing to implement the policies he's laid out so nicely for us.

My fondest, pie-in-the-sky wishes:

I'll end, though, on a positive, even optimistic note. I have made no secret of the fact that I think coalition governments are Canada's future. In the long run, they're really the only way out of the minority government muddle--they would work in Canada in the same way that they work in most of the world's democracies, providing stability without forcing a diverse political spectrum into two imperfect choices. And being the idealistic pragmatist I am, I have also made no secret of the fact that my preferred coalition government would consist of the NDP and a genuinely renewed Liberal party. While I realize how unlikely this is, given the animosity between the two parties and their extremely varied traditions, I think having Dion as the Liberal leader may well represent the only opportunity to realize that possibility in the near future.

Yes, Layton and Dion have very, very different ideas on policy, but they're also both pragmatic thinkers, and they may well be able to work together well enough to compromise in the case of a Liberal (or for that matter, NDP) minority win in the next election. Layton's official response to Dion's win was to congratulate him and to say that he "looks forward to debating with him and getting to work on the issues that are important to today’s families." That's about as positive a message as he's had for any member of another political party since, well...since he called Dion a "man of principle and conviction." I certainly don't expect either Layton or Dion to pull any punches during the next campaign, and that's as it should be. But when the votes are all counted, it is my great hope they'll be able to put aside their differences and do what's truly best for this country. Our antagonistic political culture may make it unlikely, but it could still happen if the voters and these two leaders wanted to make it happen.

All in all, Canada, the NDP, and the Liberals could all definitely have done a lot worse today. Let me echo Layton's congratulations to Dion, then. It was a fine race, well fought, and while I still hope he will manage to address some of the concerns I have over the coming months, I sincerely wish him well.

All together, now: "stupid oil boom!"

Things that have happened this week:

  • Two friends and I ordered a pizza that took almost three hours to arrive, cold, at its destination.

  • A major department store finally delivered the washer and dryer of two other friends, after they had waited 3 months for it. Those three months had consisted of five failed delivery attempts, including the store arranging for one of them to come home early from work, and then not showing up.

  • My friends and I finally learned how to game the restaurant system: one person has to get there at 5:00 or before, that person has to order as soon as they arrive (i.e., before sitting down), and they have to bring a book to read while they wait for everybody else to arrive at a saner time, because the group's meal is still going to take more than an hour to arrive. (But hey, we got fed!)

  • The city let us know that there's simply no way to clear the unexpected dumps of snow we've been getting, and we just have to live with them.

  • A whole slew of postal workers quit their jobs to pursue more lucrative careers, leaving suburban Edmonton residents without any mail delivery.

  • I realized that what irritates me even more than all these little annoyances is this: I love this city in a way I've loved no other place I've lived, and yet it's now--when living here kind of sucks--that everybody and their brother is moving here. They must hate it so much, and that makes me sad, sad, sad.
Verdict: I am so very ready for my city to start working right again.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The party of the mainstream CEOs, take two

Okay, I lied, I do have something to say about the Liberal leadership race.

Regular listeners of Greg Staples' Bloggers Hotstove may remember the now-dearchived final podcast of the summer. It was a particularly contentious one where, among other things, Greg Bester and Jason Cherniak got into a bit of a spat over the exhorbitant cost of attending the Liberal leadership convention. Greg pointed out to Jason that the delegate fee for the NDP's fall convention was going to be $95, while the Liberals were going to be charging more than ten times as much at $995. Jason shot back that this had nothing at all to do with trying to make money on the backs of their delegates and everything to do with the fact that there would be so many more people attending the Liberal convention than would be attending the NDP convention.

This sounded fishy to me at the time, of course. I mean, there wouldn't really be ten times as many people attending the Liberal convention as would be attending the NDP convention, would there? But then again, I was just a silly immigrant who had never attended one of these convention things, so what did I know. It would, after all, be a leadership convention, and lots of people would be scrambling to attend who wouldn't ordinarily bother.

Well, the NDP convention has been and gone, and onsite they were telling us that there were around 1600 attendees. The official convention site is a bit more modest, reporting "more than 1500." And the Liberals? A Hill Times article projects attendance at their convention to be between 2000 and 3000.

Those quotable Alberta Tories

All of these fascinating political things have been happening lately--the "nation" question, the Alberta Tory leadership race, the leadup to the Liberal leadership race--but in all cases, they're really somebody else's territory. I mean, unlike certain other people who were here for neither Meech nor Charlottetown, I know better than to muck about in something I don't fully understand. And other people's leadership races may feed my political geekery rather nicely, but nobody really cares about my opinions about them.

This quote from (future Alberta premier?) Ted Morton cracked me up, though, and I just had to share:

"Albertans understand that Ottawa is not Las Vegas," he said. "What happens in Ottawa doesn't stay in Ottawa."
Thanks, Ted. I'm sure the rest of Canada is relieved to hear that Albertans haven't been mistaking their country's capital for a desert city full of casinos, drive-thru wedding chapels, and Elvis impersonators. I'm happy to add, for the benefit of my non-Albertan readers, that Albertans also understand that Ottawa is neither an elephant, nor a skyscraper, nor a continent in the southern hemisphere. We do know a few things 'round these parts.

As you were.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Um, thanks!

Well, the Round 1 results are in from the Canadian Blog Awards, and I have to say, I'm a little surprised that "Jack Layton's sinister mind control experiment" is currently in first place for Best Blog Post. That was the only category I was nominated in that I could comfortably vote for myself in--I don't exactly post with enough regularity to deserve either "Best Blog" or "Best Progressive Blog"--but I'm still pretty surprised. Pleased, but surprised. (I figure it has to have been the title that did it.)

This is a crazy time of year for me, so crazy that I haven't even gotten around yet to responding to all the comments on previous posts. But I at least wanted to send out a thanks to you folks.

Update: Okay, James' and Olaf's endorsements posts were so fun to read that I've decided to add my own. Here are the categories I'll be voting in:

Best Conservative Blog: Bound by Gravity is still my favourite Tory blog (and Andrew is one of my favourite Tories anywhere), but The Prairie Wranglers is certainly giving him a run for his money in the "staunch conservative, great writer, treats progressives with respect" category. I will probably alternate voting for each on the days I vote.

Best Progressive Blog: I'd love to say I'm voting for Peace, Order, and Good Government, Eh? because they're so consistently good and I find myself nodding vigorously along with just about everything they write, but I have to admit that Calgary Grit is the better blog. Bart is a partisan Liberal, but he still manages to write a political blog that's about his own ideas rather than about Getting Out The Party Message. Given how depressingly many Liberal blogs there are where that's decidedly not the case, that is a feat worthy of my vote.

Best Group Blog: Here's the category pogge should win, hands down.

Best Humour Blog: I don't read her regularly because the sheer Liberal partisanship can make the air feel pretty thick, but damn, is The Frog Lady funny.

Best Entertainment Blog: James Bow is my favourite blogger, bar none, and while he's slacked off a bit this year on the astute political analysis (*sniff*), he's still writing impressively good reviews of episodes of science fiction shows. I'm not even watching the shows in question as they air (though I will watch "Battlestar Galactica" when it comes out on DVD), but his writing still draws me in.

Best Media Blog: Paul Wells always, always makes me think, and often makes me laugh.

Best Blog Post: I'm not ashamed to admit that I will be voting for myself in this category. But Tim-at-pogge's "Fly on the wall" is worth a look, too.

Best Blog Post Series: I've loved Stageleft's Conucopia, but what can I say, it's James Bow's writing.

Best Cultural Blog: My dear friend the Arrogant Polyglot, with his interesting observations on language and life, has my vote.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Stephen Harper and Hillary Clinton

On the day before the U.S. election, I made a post about why a few more Democrats in Congress wouldn't have me rushing back south of the border. One of the statements I made was that "the Democratic frontrunner for the 2008 presidential race, Hillary Clinton, is to the right of Stephen Harper on almost every issue." My post was quoted in the "Americans" thread of this forum, where my statement was dismissed out of hand, and I was criticized for not backing it up with evidence. While the posts on that thread are currently temporarily unavailable, I still wanted to address that criticism now that I have a free moment.

The best way I could think to provide evidence for my statement is to compare the two politicians' stated platforms. To do this, I looked into their statements on a handful of issues that have been writ large in both the U.S. and in Canada in recent years, skipping things like child care and electronic voting that have only made a splash on one side of the border. Unless otherwise specified, my source for Harper's policies was the Conservative Party of Canada's 2006 platform, and for Clinton's policies, the issues section of her website and this wikipedia page. Here's how they each stack up:

Intervention in the Middle East

Stephen Harper: While he was initially strongly in favour of the U.S.'s war in Iraq, his December 2005 op-ed in the Washington Times stated that he wouldn't commit Canadian forces to that war, and that he was "greatly disappointed" in the U.S. failure to substantiate intelligence about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. He supports the coalition forces' efforts in Afghanistan and Canada's continued involvement in that war. He strongly supported Israel's bombing of Lebanon in their efforts to damage Hezbollah.

Hillary Clinton: She's been a strong supporter of the war in Iraq. Her most recent statements have been more cautious, however, leading to charges of waffling. She still opposes any sort of immediate pullout or fixed dates for withdrawal, but she's started sounding like she favours moving slowly in that direction. She supports the coalition forces' efforts in Afghanistan and the U.S.'s continued involvement in that war. She strongly supported Israel's bombing of Lebanon in their efforts to damage Hezbollah.

Verdict: This one's very close, since their positions are quite similar. Both have gotten more cautious about the war in Iraq over time, while stopping short of calling it a mistake. And both have never wavered in their support for Israeli interventions and the war in Afghanistan. Let's call it even.


Stephen Harper: He supported the Anti-Terrorism Act when it was introduced in 2001, and his government continues to support the broad definition of terrorism as contained in that act. He supports repealing the current long gun registry, but leaving the existing registry and bans for other kinds of weapons in place, including handguns.

Hillary Clinton: She's known far and wide for her tough stances on security, which likely has something to do with the fact that she represents the state of New York. She voted in favour of the renewal of the PATRIOT Act this year (which, among other things, allows the government to access medical records, tax records, and library records without having to show probable cause) and supports funding research for a missile defense system. The right-wing Washington Times called her position on illegal immigration "more conservative than President Bush." She favours a new law that would require gun owners to register their handguns.

Verdict: They're both pretty extreme on this issue, but Clinton's hardline stance on illegal immigration combined with the fact that the U.S. PATRIOT Act is even more draconian than Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act still pushes Clinton a mite further to the right.

Health care

Stephen Harper: The following sentence appears in the CPC platform: "We are committed to a universal, publicly funded health care system that respects the five principles of the Canada Health Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms." As for what that actually means, the devil is in the details. The Canada Health Act requires universality, comprehensiveness, and public administration in health care solutions. What it doesn't require is a complete absence of private industry's involvement in the delivery of those solutions. Harper has been careful to stay pretty mum about his opinion on the issue of private delivery, but by phrasing his support for public health care as support for the existing Canada Health Act, he certainly hasn't ruled it out.

Hillary Clinton: She opposes single-payer health care as "politically unrealistic." She has two big ideas for reforming the U.S. health care "system," which is currently based on providing private health insurance as a benefit of full-time employment. The first is making it easier for uninsured Americans to purchase health insurance through existing group plans. The second is...wait for it...making it legal in the U.S. to import cheap drugs from Canada. Universal, publicly funded health care system? She got burned on that one when she was First Lady, and isn't touching it with a ten-foot pole. And as for those cheap Canadian drugs, one might argue that if certain powerful U.S. Senators were to propose keeping costs low through price controls (as they do here in Canada), then there wouldn't be any need for reimportation. One might argue that, but Hillary Clinton sure isn't doing so.

Verdict: Harper's so much further left on this one that they can't even see each other from where they each stand. I'd love to see what would happen in the U.S. if Clinton started advocating the kinds of policies that Harper takes for granted, though.

Campaign finance reform

Stephen Harper: The Conservatives promised to limit individual donations to parties or candidates to a maximum of $1,000, prohibit all corporate, union, and organization donations to political parties, ridings, and candidates, prohibit candidates from accepting large personal campaign contributions, and ban the use of trust funds to finance candidates’ campaigns. The Accountability Act that they introduced this year does all of these things. And of course, they will also continue the current cap on campaign spending for individual House of Commons races.

Hillary Clinton: Hmm. Well, on the pro side, she made the terrifically bold statement back in 2000 that she thinks the U.S. needs to "change the system of campaign financing." On the con side, she once argued with campaign finance reformer Russ Feingold about the issue at a Democratic Policy Committee luncheon. Other than that...nothing. Nothing on her website, nothing in her speeches. And most of what you find when you google on "hillary clinton" "campaign finance" is about alleged fraud.

Verdict: Um, yeah. Can you imagine Hillary Clinton--or any Democrat, for that matter--sponsoring a bill that would cap spending on Congressional campaigns to $80,000, cap individual donations at $1000, or ban corporate donations altogether? Ha ha ha ha, that's pretty funny. If the left-wing are communists and the right-wing are fascists, then when it comes to campaign finance reform, you can paint Stephen Harper bright crimson and teach Hillary Clinton how to goose-step.

Same-sex marriage

Stephen Harper: The only policy mentioned in the CPC platform on this issue is that of calling for a free vote on reopening the question, which is supposed to happen yet this fall. But Harper himself prefers a definition that confines marriage to opposite-sex couples. If he had his way, he would repeal the current same-sex marriage law and recognize same-sex couples with civil unions, which would recognize the legal, economic and parental rights of same-sex partners without allowing them to marry.

Hillary Clinton: When she first ran for Senate in 2000, she opposed marriage equality on moral, religious, and traditional grounds. She's also supported the Defense of Marriage Act, which states that for federal purposes, only the marriage of one man and one woman is recognized as valid. She's since moved a bit further left, though, stating that she believes in "full equality of benefits, nothing left out," and that "there is a greater likelihood of getting to that point in civil unions or domestic partnerships," but she still opposes calling same-sex unions marriage.

Verdict: Since Clinton's budged enough on this issue that they now seem to have identical positions, I call it a wash.

Now, I can hear some of you sputtering that this isn't really a fair comparison. Stephen Harper is currently moving a progressive country further right, you say, while a potential President Hillary Clinton would move a conservative country further left. If left to their own devices, you argue, Harper would almost certainly come up with far more conservative policies than he's presented to the country in recent years, and Clinton would surge left and make all sorts of radical changes. This may or may not be true--we can't exactly peer inside their respective heads--but sure, there's certainly a chance that it is.

But that only confirms the point I was trying to make when I made my original statement about the positions they each occupy on the political spectrum. In Canada, even a true-blue Conservative like Stephen Harper has to face up to the reality of a country that's decidedly to the left of him and modify his preferred policies accordingly. And in the U.S., the furthest left their current top Democratic presidential candidate is willing to go is still to the right of the most conservative government Canada has had in a long, long time. Believe me, I'm anything but happy with Harper and Co.'s sharp right turn for Canada, and I will certainly continue to criticize his policies in my blog. But the fact is that without a majority government--and possibly even then--he's still further left than most of the U.S. Democrats, including their current frontrunner for the presidential nomination.

And as for the forum participant who challenged me to back up my statement about Hillary Clinton with evidence, I'd now like to invite him to do the same--back up his own statements that I'm wrong. Show me that Hillary Clinton isn't "to the right of Stephen Harper on almost every issue." I'm listening.

Let's play "Joe Lieberman or Chuck Cadman"!

He was a longtime public servant, elected under the banner of an establishment party that was sick and tired of being in opposition. But he was also unconventional, which angered the party elite on the one hand and the grassroots on the other. As a result of this, he was finally deprived of his right to run under his party's banner when a different local candidate was chosen to run for his longtime seat. Stubborn to the core, he chose to continue the fight as an independent candidate, and after a tough race, he prevailed.

The resentment against his party ran deep, however, and he insisted on maintaining his independence despite grand overtures from the leadership. Complicating matters even further was the fact that the legislative body he was a part of was exactly matched between his former party and the other guys, so everybody knew one little vote could make all the difference. And in the end he got the last laugh: he cozied up to the other side in a key vote, giving them the victory and deeply wounding his old party.

Okay, you're right--the last sentence makes it Chuck Cadman, at least for now. But who knows what the future holds?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Pardon my dust

Sorry about sending all those old posts to your RSS readers, folks. I'm done now, I promise. And I not only have every post I've ever written tagged now (tags! oh frabjous day!), but I also have a new look. If you're reading this in RSS, come see! It's much easier to read, and it also has the benefit of not being freaking ugly. *grin*

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Canadian blog awards

Round One Voting in the 2006 Canadian Blog Awards is open. You're allowed to vote once per day until November 21st (since most of the involved blogs are political blogs, this always amuses me--what does this say about bloggers' preferred electoral system?). I was nominated this year for Best Blog, Best Progressive Blog, and Best Blog Post, and will be voting for myself in some of those categories but not in others.

The real reason why I'm making this post, though, is to encourage you to check out my friend the Arrogant Polyglot before deciding to abstain in the Best Culture Blog category. He's smart and funny, he makes linguistics accessible, and he's definitely worth a look. And while I won't be so presumptuous as to encourage you to vote for me over equally and often more-deserving others, I will certainly encourage you to vote for AP over not voting in that category at all!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Fair voting is as easy as 1, 2, 3...or column A and column B

I am running around like that proverbial chicken, so there's no time either to post about the dozen and one exciting things happening in politics these days, or to reply to some very thoughtful comments people have made on various posts. But I wanted to be sure nobody missed Andrew Coyne's column for this week, called "Fair voting is as easy as 1, 2, 3." Here are the first three paragraphs, click-free:

I don't want to alarm you, but there is a small bomb about to go off under the Ontario legislature. All but unnoticed by the media, a group of seemingly ordinary citizens from across the province have been meeting since the summer, planning, learning, steeling themselves for the task ahead. Their name: the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. Their mission, should they choose to accept it: overthrow Ontario's political system.

Well, give it a good shake at any rate. One of the few election promises Dalton McGuinty kept, the assembly has been handed the remarkable assignment of investigating what, if any, reforms should be made to the way Ontarians are represented in their legislature: whether the province should stick with the old plurality or "first-past-the-post" system it has used since its founding, or whether it should adopt some other system, typically one form or another of "proportional representation." Whatever changes they propose will be put to a referendum at the next provincial election, Oct. 4, 2007.

I say "remarkable," for good reason: That any government elected under the old system of counting the votes would be willing to consider another is one thing, but that it would be willing to entrust this task to a group of plain folks is just astonishing. Like the British Columbia Citizens Assembly on which it is modelled, the assembly is not made up of the usual assortment of interest group axe-grinders and condescending experts that tend to show up at these things. Indeed, it is almost entirely free of politically correct jury-rigging: just one man and one woman drawn at random from each of Ontario's 103 ridings. And if the B.C. experience is any guide, their recommendations will be taken all the more seriously because of it.
I am delighted by Coyne's endorsement of reform, but I do have one concern. Among the available choices for giving Canada a fair voting system, he clearly favours STV. This is a familiar issue among reformers--everybody's got their pet system. On the one hand, that's fine--I've got mine, too. But it becomes a problem when, say, the proponents of MMP say they'll take their marbles and go home if the people pick STV (as the British Columbia NDP did during that province's voting reform referendum), and proponents of STV say they'll take their marbles and go home if the people pick MMP.

What it comes down to is this: every system has its flaws, and either of those two possible systems would be lightyears better than what we have now. For reformers, that needs to mean that if our pet system doesn't get picked by the Ontario citizens' assembly (who,
it should be said, are a very diverse group that's doing very good work), we need to suck it up and let it go. And that goes for Andrew Coyne just as it does for me.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Blogging Dipper contemplates leadership run

Jean-François Arseneau, the blogger behind From the Mind of a Netjin, is contemplating a run for the leadership of the New Brunswick NDP. The position is left vacant as Allison Brewer steps down. The party failed to win any seats under her leadership in their recent election.

This is immensely exciting to me. While I disagreed with Jean-François at the time that a special caucus within the federal party was necessary, his post about his vision for a NDP social democratic caucus was still as close as I've ever seen to a summary of my own political views (apart from the whole monarchy thing, that is, which I can take or leave). As for the rest, well, over to him:

I'm young, so I'm a fresh face with fresh ideas, at 23 I'd probably be the youngest party leader ever. I'm fluently bilingual, Acadian, from the north of the province in the only NDP federal riding of New Brunswick, Acadie-Bathurst. I don't mind living on a meager wage. I'd be the candidate from the blogosphere, proponent of open-source, transparent and accountable government, subsidiarity, decentralized and grassroots democracy, multinationalism and internationalism, feminism, confederalism, environmentalism and reforming power generation and consumption in the region, Atlantic Canadian solidarity, Atlantic Canadian cultural development and increased visibility outside and within the region, literacy, child care, poverty reduction, welfare reform, improved K-12 and post-secondary education, social market economics, trade agreements and closer ties with Europe and of encouraging an entrepreneurial, pioneering spirit in New Brunswick and the other Atlantic Canadian provinces. Oh, and my last name, Arseneau, ends with 'eau', which rings with P.E. Trudeau at the federal level and Louis J. Robichaud at the provincial level.
Jean-François is smart, sensible, and visionary, and the New Brunswick NDP would be incredibly lucky to have him. I know I'm all the way over here on the other side of the country, but he's got my endorsement. If you agree, go over and tell him so!

You're stuck with me

On this U.S. election eve, it looks as if the Democrats will be taking over at least the House, if probably not the Senate as well. And blogger Altavistagoogle asks whether this means that dissatisfied Americans who move to Canada will suddenly want to return, since it will mean Democrats being in charge in the U.S. while Conservatives are in charge in Canada. Now, I can't speak for the primary protagonist in that post (though she can certainly speak for herself), but in my case it's a resounding no. Why? Let me count the ways.

1. Altavistagoogle's characterization of Stephen Harper being "firmly in control of Canada" defies reality rather handily. Harper is the leader of the weakest minority government Canada has ever seen, and he has to put up with things like meddling social democrats in order to keep that government alive. Furthermore, far from receiving a post-election bounce during his so-called "honeymoon period," his polling numbers have consistently shown his government's inability to do any better than they did in the election. Canada may elect a Conservative government, but they'll never completely fall for one. This delights me.

2. Further, Altavistagoogle's characterization of Michael Ignatieff as the leading Liberal candidate, while technically correct, ignores some of the facts (can we say "Anybody But Ignatieff movement?" can we say "almost no second- or third-place delegate support"?). And the characterization of him as the "next Canadian Prime Minister" in the post's addendum seems...unlikely, to put it kindly. Even if he does manage to pull off the win within his own party.

3. Next, Altavistagoogle's summary of the situation in the U.S. also leaves much to be desired. While I'd love to see the voters defy the polls on this one, the numbers certainly don't show that the Democrats will "probably take back both houses." The peace movement becoming cool? Among peace activists, maybe, but not among those in charge. And the anti-gay aren't "coming out of the closet," they're being forced out by the other side of a radically polarized electorate (right-wingers vs. centrists, natch). Meanwhile in Canada, we have polls that reveal just how unpopular even a minority Conservative government can be, people marching in the streets to protest a war that hasn't even come close to being as screwed up as the one in Iraq, and a Liberal leadership candidate who posed nude to raise money for charity whose homosexuality is a mere afterthought in the news story.

4. And finally, even if the U.S. does manage by some miracle to take back both Houses, the people in charge of Congress will be...the Democrats. I don't know about L-girl, but in my case they convinced me of the need to get the hell out of Dodge far more than the Republicans ever could have. Because of the U.S.'s hopeless two-party system, when the Democrats are in charge, lefty Americans are forced to look around and see the centre-right policies they implement and know that things can never get any better than that. The Democratic frontrunner for the 2008 presidential race, Hillary Clinton, is to the right of Stephen Harper on almost every issue. Think about that. I for one would be thrilled to see the Democrats take both Houses, but only because the resulting subpoena power would make for some fine schadenfreude, not because they offer a leftist alternative.

Yeah, not so much with the going back, thanks.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Caucus management, Harper-style

Muzzling rogue or otherwise difficult MPs to the outside world can be seen as effective message management. Muzzling them in caucus meetings, though, is much more difficult to rationalize:

Describe a typical caucus meeting when you were in government.

National caucus is not a place for debate. In fact, in my time during the national caucus I never saw a free-wheeling debate on policy. During the Israeli–Lebanon conflict we did not have a policy debate. An attempt was made to have one during the summer at a caucus meeting, but it was shut down.

Who shut it down, Harper?

No, it was shut down by the caucus chairperson, Rahim Jaffer. It’s his job to control the meetings; so, there has been no debate. My view of caucus is a place where everybody goes and they are all equal and they hash things out, and the party comes up with a position, but national caucus is not like that. It is a time for party administration and the cabinet ministers to tell other people what they’re doing. They take a few questions, but there’s not a debate.

You would think that caucus would be the one place where backbench MPs could speak freely behind closed doors.

That is the traditional definition of a caucus, and traditionally it should be open for debate, but the caucus that Mr. Harper runs is from the top down; it’s not from the bottom up. And it is for caucus to be instructed, not for the party administration to be told.

You ever seen a caucus treated like this before?

No, this is new to me. I’ve never seen a caucus this controlled or with such little debate or consultation. I also never seen a caucus where someone was thrown out because they had differences of opinion on policy that was not fundamental. I could see, if during the Mulroney years, somebody said, “You’re an idiot for bringing in the GST and I’m going to the media and say so,” they’d probably be thrown out. It was a key plank. But I haven’t done that, and I haven’t done anything in my view that merited my being thrown out, nor have I been given any evidence. It is just simply because they did not like somebody expressing their opinion.
Now, yes, this is Garth Turner speaking, and if anybody has a bone to pick with Harper these days, it's him. But it's difficult to claim that this is nothing but sour grapes when it jives so well with what we're seeing with our very own eyes.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Myth #1: proportional representation leads to minority governments

The UK electoral reform blog Make My Vote Count has an interesting, semi-regular series on myths about proportional representation, and in light of some misleading comments that have been made on various blogs recently, it's starting to look like it's necessary to do a similar series for Canada. So let's start with the one that's been rattling through the blogosphere lately as the Conservatives have gotten frustrated with running a minority govermnent: if Canada had proportional representation, we would have the current sort of unstable minority government forever and ever amen.

The myth

One example of this myth can be found in the comments to this post over at Accidental Deliberations:

And this is what Proportional Representation would look like, nothing getting done. Not too amusing when the taxpayer is footing the bill for NOTHING.
and a bit more thoughtfully in this post from the Prairie Wranglers:
Under a PR system, it would be very unlikely, at any point, for any Canadian political party to achieve majority status, as few politicians have been able to achieve over 50% of the popular vote since Canadian first realigned into a 3-party system, sometime between 1921-35 (Diefenbaker did in 1957, and Mulroney did in 1984, but only by 0.03% margin). Many suggest this is an inherent benefit of the system, as it forces political parties to work together in order to achieve a consensus which better represents the nuances of political opinion throughout the country.

How does this jive, however, with our current predicament. Witness the recent pitched battle over who in fact is responsible for preventing parliament from moving legislation through the House; the Conservatives blame the opposition, the NDP and the Liberals blame the government, while the Bloc sits on the sidelines making outrageous demands in return for its support. This lends credence to the criticisms of those against PR that a perpetual minority government in Canada is an unworkable and unstable solution, as it will simply provide a forum for political grandstanding and posturing while obstructing concrete action.
When put like that, it sounds pretty convincing, right? Proportional representation prevents majority governments, right? When Canada has minority governments, things are unstable, and there's more political grandstanding than there is concrete action, right? Therefore, if Canada switches to a PR-based electoral system, we will have a perpetual minority government--which would mean yearly elections, nothing but hot air from our politicians, and never getting anything done. Right?

It would be a lot more convincing if it were true. In fact, minority governments are much rarer under proportional representation than they have been recently in Canada. What proportional representation systems actually tend to produce are majority coalition governments, which, as I mentioned previously in my proportional representation FAQ, are about as similar to minority governments as apples are to kumquats. Majority coalitions aren't minority governments, but real majority governments of more than one party, formed to create the kind of long-term stability that simply cannot be found in a minority government.

How coalitions work

Part of the problem for Canadians is that the word 'coalition' tends to be misused in this country to mean any informal alliance between parties. But a true government coalition bears almost no resemblance to the informal agreements such as the one we saw between the federal Liberals and the NDP in 2005, or the one Jack Layton is trying to build between all parties in the House right now over the Clean Air Act. These kinds of informal alliances are created on an impromptu basis when one party or a group of parties exerts pressure on the party running the minority government, and as we have seen, this pressure usually consists of threatening to bring down the government if they don't jump. Government coalitions, on the other hand, are formed immediately after an election between the winning party and its chosen coalition partner(s), with the goal of forming a majority government (i.e., adding up to at least 50% of the seats between them). There are no threats and no media grandstanding, just quiet talks between the first-place party and the party or parties they feel they can work with on a long-term basis. The point of these talks is not to concoct a plan that will hold a fragile minority together for a couple of months, but to come up with compromises between the parties' platforms that will withstand the test of time.

During these talks, the parties not only agree to a common policy framework, but they also negotiate about who is going to get various cabinet positions and take charge of the corresponding ministries. This means that the leader of the winning party might say something like this to the potential coalition partner: "Okay, you guys hold ten percent of the seats, so it makes sense for you to have around ten percent of the cabinet positions. But it's important for our party to be in charge of all of the main ministries like finance and foreign affairs. We're willing to give you things like immigration and labour--how about that?" The leader of the potential coalition partner can then come back with things like: "Well, if you're not going to let us have any of the main ministries, we want more than ten percent of the cabinet positions. How does twenty percent sound?" Or perhaps: "No, we're not willing to settle for only minor ministries--and specifically, we want the environment ministry because it's been a huge part of our platform and that's something we won't back down on. But we're willing to take fewer than ten percent of the ministries in order to make sure it can happen that way."

Because everyone agrees to these compromises during the formation of the government, the government doesn't get formed until the disagreements are worked out. This can take up to several weeks in situations where there are a lot of conflicts--primarily in cases when the electoral outcome was different from expectations and the winning party's preferred coalition partner didn't get enough seats to add up to a majority--but the end result is a situation in which all members of the coalition have a stake in ensuring the continued persistence of the government. The smaller coalition partner doesn't feel moved to threaten to bring down the government because they are part of the government. The parties then work together to make and implement the common policies that they have agreed on.

The stability of coalitions

There is a further widespread misconception that regardless of the care taken in their formation, majority government coalitions tend to function in practice in the same way minority governments do. This misconception showed up most recently in Olaf's responses to my objections to the Prairie Wranglers' post:

It is my understanding that coalition governments, as opposed to minority governments, are not as fundamentally different as you would suggest, and would appear quite similar for quite some time in our Westminster system of government, in particular. I mean, the Liberals and the NDP were, in my opinion, textbook examples of natural allies in many respects, and we all know how that worked out.
While it's certainly the case that there have been majority coalition governments that have been as battle-torn and unstable as our minority governments (more on that in a moment), it's incorrect to imply that this is the norm, or even that it is common. There are many forms of proportional representation found in the world today, but only two have been advanced as possible models for reform in Canada: Mixed-Member Proportional like they have in Germany, and Single Transferable Vote like they have in Ireland. And when you compare the frequency of elections in these two countries to similar numbers for Canada, the results are striking:

16 elections since 1948, 1 election every 3.63 years
16 elections since 1949, 1 election every 3.56 years
18 elections since 1945, 1 election every 3.39 years

In these two countries, majority coalition governments are the norm: Ireland hasn't had a single-party government since the 1980s, and Germany has only had one single-party government in its entire post-war history. And yet they have still been incredibly stable. In Ireland, the coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats has persisted throughout all but five of the last seventeen years (Fianna Fáil chose the Irish Labour Party as a coalition partner from 1992 to 1994, and three other parties briefly formed a different coalition from 1994 to 1997). The recent German coalition between the Social Democrats and the Greens was stable enough not only to last out its term, but to be reelected in 2002, and extremely stable coalition governments of the conservative Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats have also existed under chancellors Adenauer, Erhard, and the seemingly undefeatable Helmut Kohl, who was reelected a total of five times.

These two countries are typical for the two kinds of proportional representation that have been proposed for Canada. But even if we summarize trends from proportional representation systems across the board, the stability picture doesn't look all that objectionable. The average length of government in countries that use Canada's First Past the Post system is three and half years. In countries with various proportional representation systems, the average length of a government is two and half years. This suggests a somewhat more frequent turnover, but not enormously so. Furthermore, the actual effects of this kind of "instability" are greatly lessened in practice, since many of these "changes in government" include restructurings where the main coalition partner stays the same but only the smaller one is different (making them less like Canadian changes in government and more like Canadian cabinet shuffles). And this average includes many countries that Canadian electoral reformers have no desire to emulate, and many forms of proportional representation (such as pure party list proportional representation) that no Canadians want.

Now, in conversations about proportional representation, detractors will inevitably bring up two countries where coalition governments have meant frequent changes of government and/or a great deal of conflict between coalition partners: Israel and Italy. But there is no reason to believe that Israel and Italy behave typically for countries with proportional electoral systems, and there are many reasons to believe that they are in fact completely atypical. In Italy, weakened party discipline can be attributed largely to the practice of secret balloting by MPs in the House, and in Israel, living under a constant threat of war seems likely to have influenced their governments in ways that most European parliamentary democracies have not had to deal with. And finally, both Italy and Israel have historically used versions of pure party list proportional representation (Italy recently switched to a system more similar to Germany's) that Canadian electoral reformers are not interested in introducing in Canada anyway. And both Mixed-Member Proportional and Single Transferable Vote systems do away with the worst of the potential problems of pure list PR by having threshholds for small parties' inclusion in parliament.

Coalitions: not for Canada?

Finally, an idea has been batted around lately that majority coalition governments simply wouldn't work in Canada. Scott Tribe put this viewpoint forward in his comments on my interview with Stéphane Dion, arguing that "multi-party coalitions just don't happen in Canada," and that "the ideological diffrences in the multi-party system in a such a diverse country as Canada are deep and bitter, and I highly doubt that parties would set aside their partisan differences." Olaf from the Prairie Wranglers agreed in his responses to my arguments in his post, saying that "our system of government is reliant on conflict, and has been since day one," and that he "doesn't think that Canada's political culture has progressed to the point where collaboration and conciliation could be the rule rather than the exception."

I find this line of reasoning puzzling. It's certainly true that coalition governments have been far rarer in Canada than they have been in most other parliamentary democracies: since the 1800s, Canada has only had one coalition government (during World War I). But attributing this rarity to something inherent in Canadian culture seems farfetched at best. There is nothing inherently more squabble-prone about Canadians than there is about Europeans--on the contrary, Canadian culture is well-known for its propensity for compromise. Instead, it seems far more realistic to attribute this distinction to Canada's electoral system. In fact, if we compare the few parliamentary democracies with single-party government traditions to those that instead tend to form government coalitions, a noticeable pattern emerges. The only countries in which the winning party insists on governing alone are those that use First Past the Post--countries like Canada, the UK, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. All of the countries that have some sort of proportional electoral system tend to govern by majority coalition.

Part of the reason for this, of course, is the way First Past the Post tends to award a majority of the seats in parliament to parties that do not manage to get a majority of the votes. After all, there is no need for more than one party to cooperate in a coalition when one party alone always gets the majority of seats. But this also means that under First Past the Post, all parties that want to govern will tend to organize their political strategies in ways that aim for single-party majority governments. We see evidence of that in Canada right now--the Tories are so devoted to finding a way to govern alone that they seem to be forgetting that they have a minority government, and the Liberals, too, tend to behave as if they just need to win the next election and they'll be able to govern with a single-party majority. A lack of compromise is built into the system.

As for the argument that switching to proportional representation wouldn't make our politicians any more willing to work together to form coalition governments, evidence from New Zealand would seem to counter that. New Zealand switched from First Past the Post to a Mixed-Member Proportional system by referendum in 1993, and they have had government coalitions ever since. The early coalitions did tend to be wobbly and fractious, since their parties had to completely adjust their strategies and their politicians had to learn how to do their jobs in ways that promoted cooperation over conflict. But they seem to be moving out of the adjustment period now, and more recent years have shown evidence of the kind of long-term stability found in Germany or Ireland.

It's silly to talk about coalition governments as if they were some weird phenomenon that only exists in the Third World when they're the status quo in most of the world's democracies. Belgium and the Netherlands manage to form government coalitions in countries with large numbers of immigrants. Switzerland manages it in a country that has four national languages and four distinctly different cultural groups. Germany manages it in a country that used to be two different countries right up until 1990. There is absolutely no reasonable argument for the notion that Canada is inherently different from the rest of the world on this front. It is only our electoral system that promotes the kind of conflict our political culture is rife with--all the parties are so busy going for broke that they don't realize they're going for broken.

But most importantly, the arguments about whether or not coalitions are possible for Canada make it sound like we have a choice in the matter. We don't. The main argument for First Past the Post is that it produces a clear winner that can then go on to form a strong single-party majority government, and it works this way in countries that have a strong two-party system, like the United States. In Canada, however, that very same electoral system doesn't work the way it is supposed to work anymore. Why? Because the NDP and the Bloc Québécois have become significant enough forces that the advantage granted to large parties under First Past the Post is no longer enough to manufacture a majority government for either the Tories or the Liberals. And while the two large parties like to pretend that we'll soon be returning to a strong two-party system, pretending doesn't make it so. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the NDP and the Bloc are going anywhere anytime soon. On the contrary, the rise in popularity of the Greens suggests that there may soon be yet another significant force on the electoral scene, one that moves Canada even more irrevocably toward being a true multiparty system.

This means that the political strategies of both the Conservatives and the Liberals--strategies that require single-party majority governments in order to function properly--are entirely out of synch with the realities of the Canadian political situation. Even the NDP, with their recent talk of forming a government on the federal level, seems to be more interested in governing alone than in being part of a real, lasting government coalition. But these parties are labouring under a collective delusion, and it's a delusion that's harming Canada. The only realistic, long-term solution to the current instability is for our political parties to learn to work together--and not in an ad-hoc, temporary sense like what Jack Layton is promoting right now, but in true government coalitions. And while proportional representation isn't a prerequisite for coalition governments (Canada's World War I coalition attests to that) it may well be the only way to force our parties to stop denying the need for majority coalitions and start finding a permanent solution to our current predicament.

Ironically, the best argument for proportional representation in Canada right now may not be the run-of-the-mill ones such as more fairness, increased voter participation, or an increase in the number of women parliamentarians, but more stability.

Further reading

True electoral system geeks (as well as anyone who wants to check the facts in this post) are going to want to read Arend Lijphart's Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. A summary of this book (in .pdf form) can be downloaded from the Fair Vote Canada website here.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Jack's world

I'm not generally one to go all hyper-partisan on you folks and shout it from the rooftops every time Jack Layton ends up in the media. I mean, even if I felt inclined to do that, which I don't, there are party mailing lists for that sort of thing, right? But today I'm impressed enough that I'm going to embarrass myself by doing just that.

First, there was Layton's appearance on
CPAC's Prime Time Politics on October 26th, where he came across as pragmatic and smart. The interview lasted twelve minutes and covered everything from the possibility of a spring election to Afghanistan to specific pieces of legislation like the Clean Air Act, the Accountability Act, and the crime bills. It even contained a believable response to the question: "Realistically, where does the Conservative ideology train and the NDP ideology train--where on those tracks do those trains ever meet?" But most importantly, it felt natural. That's right, an entire twelve minutes without even a touch of that artificial air that he often gets when the camera is trained on him. I almost cheered.

Then came today, and this news story about Layton being willing to a) talk to Harper about possible improvements to the Clean Air Act that might bring the NDP closer to supporting it, and b) face a spring or even a fall election if the Conservatives don't start being willing to remember that they're in a minority parliament. This is the way the game is played, folks. Even Conservative blogger Greg Staples and Liberal blogger Far and Wide have a grudging respect for the guy this week, while über-Liberal Jason Cherniak is spinning, spinning, spinning.

[By the way, I listen to the CPAC shows on podcast, and it was already in MP3 form on my computer, so it was easy enough to save the Layton interview excerpt for anybody else who wanted to hear it. Feel free to nab it from here.]