Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Friday, February 24, 2006

I bet his wife's name is Fanny

Okay, we all need to start paying attention to this guy who Discover Magazine is calling "the Energizer" (link courtesy of Bound by Gravity). Not because he's managed to keep the energy bill for his 4000-square-foot home down to five dollars a month. Not because he's a "physicist, economist, inventor, automobile designer, consultant to 18 heads of state, author of 29 books, and cofounder of Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental think tank." No, all that is just icing on the cake.

Instead, we need to listen to him because his name is AMORY LOVINS, and yet he's still managed to do something with his life that doesn't involve the sex industry. Which has to be one of the most impressive accomplishments I've heard about in some time.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Canada goes to Germany

I've been watching with a growing sense of horror as all the conservative Canadian bloggers I know have been voicing sentiments about how Canada needs to "get its birth rate up" or else our culture as we know it will disappear. As far as I'm concerned, this line of thought goes beyond disconcerting and straight to creepy. It reminds me of a line of thought that's already familiar to me from my years living in Germany--a line of thought that always felt about fifty years out of date in that country, if you get my drift. And hearing it from Canadians has made me wonder where the Canada I know went and how I managed to miss its passing.

But since even several bloggers I greatly respect have been saying this sort of thing, I'm going to assume I'm just misunderstanding something, here. I'm going to assume that they're not actually saying "pretty white Canadian babies will pay our pensions better than brown immigrant babies would." I'm going to assume that they're not actually saying "when Canadian women choose not to have children, they aren't fulfilling their duty to country and culture." I'm going to assume they're saying something a little vaguer, something that compares Canada to a stodgy old business that they have to grow in very particular conventional ways if they don't want it to change beyond its middle-aged CEOs' recognition. That, at least, is more annoying than gross.

That argument, paraphrasing several comments on the posts linked above, seems to go like this: "If we don't get the birth rate up, our culture as we know it will change. This is a fact, and we have to decide whether that's okay with us." But my question for the conservatives who agree with this sentiment is this: do you really think that if Stephen Harper starts doling out $1200 a year to stay-at-home moms, the culture as we know it won't change? Seriously, now? Every generation prior to ours has had to deal with their kids doing things that they don't really understand--from two-piece bathing suits to tattoos and piercings--but not us? We're going to be the first ones to preserve our precious culture exactly the way it is in 2006, and all we have to do to make this happen is get more Canadian-born Canadians making babies?

And they say Dippers are idealistic.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Jason Cherniak's utopia

I wasn't planning on weighing in on the whole the NDP is sick/the Liberals are sick/Jason Cherniak is sick controversy, because it's pretty much all been said already. But today I was clicking through the incredibly depressing Democrats sure are useless category over at the left-wing U.S. blog Pandagon, and if you want a look at what the Canadian Liberals might look like if there were no NDP, you don't need to look any further.

From Pandagon's Pam Spaulding:

Let’s take a look at Howard Dean's vision of the core values of the party for 2006. Pay close attention to the sections on civil rights and civil equality, especially given we have state after state passing or preparing to pass amendments making lesbian and gay taxpaying residents second-class citizens. [...] What did you think about the civil equality section? Oh, oops...I’m sorry, you didn’t skim past it. IT'S NOT THERE.
And from Pandagon's jedmunds:
Everything in the Democratic party has been reduced to electability. And it is disgusting. Disgusting. A loud, defiant, fiery, populist surrender is bullshit. If you’re gonna lose, lose with some dignity, with your wounds in your chest and not in your back. I have no use for angry retreat. But that’s all I see on the horizon for this Democratic Party.
Oh, sure, we can tell ourselves that this is just another example of those crazy Americans, and that Canadians are different. But remember all those broken Liberal promises. Remember the national child care program that took a decade to not-quite-materialize, the failure to resist privatization in health care, the parliamentary committee on electoral reform that never went anywhere. Ask yourselves just how many more promises would have been broken if there hadn't been a party to their left, holding their feet to the fire. Ask yourselves how different the Canadian political scene might look as a two-party system. Ask yourselves whether you'd really want the chance to find out.

If people like Jason Cherniak really want to live in a country where centre and right are the only available options, then that possibility is open to them--immigration works both ways, after all. But I spent most of my life in the U.S., and I prefer the colourful political diversity that Canada has to offer.

Bill Graham: continuing Martin's legacy

So, Bill Graham is saying this morning that the Liberals won't be willing to work with the government on any measures that don't accommodate their own policy, even if it means triggering an election. Which, you know, that's certainly their right, and given Harper's rather rocky stint as PM so far, a game of chicken may actually be good politics right now.

But would someone please get these people some anti-arrogance training? There are far, far humbler ways of sending the very same message--they don't have to blame everyone but themselves for being kept away from their rightful places on the government side of the aisle. How about: "we'd work with the Conservatives if they were willing to be reasonable, but we won't compromise our core principles"? How about: "we're the Official Opposition, and we're going to do a damn fine job opposing this government"? Or even: "In Mr. Harper's very first day as prime minister, he proved all on his own that his government isn't going to be worth supporting"?

Monday, February 13, 2006

New Zealand in the 1990s: part zero

As a tangentially-related addendum on my last post: it seems as good a time as any to mention that I will soon be starting a series of posts focusing on New Zealand and the changes they made to their electoral system in the 1990s.

So why New Zealand? Well, it's a fairly trivial task to figure out the effects that a proportional voting system tends to have on a country's politics--you only have to look at a broad cross-section of the countries that already have those systems, and then sort out which effects are systemic and which are due to peculiarities of that country's situation. There are obvious problems, though, with eyeing these already-existing systems and assuming that Canada would be just like them following a switch. It seems wiser to assume that any changes to Canada's voting system would require a period of adjustment--but what might that period of adjustment look like? The political science scholarship about New Zealand in the past fifteen years can provide a glimpse at the immediate consequences of a change from first-past-the-post to proportional representation--both positive and negative, both intended and unintended.

Those are the issues that my upcoming series will attempt to explore.

Anti-floor-crossing legislation: potential consequences

In the wake of David Emerson's defection from the defeated Liberals to the governing Conservatives, an old proposal has resurfaced in public debate, arguing that there should be a bill that would require wayward MPs wanting to cross the floor to run in by-elections. A number of individual Liberals and Conservatives already support such a bill, as does the bulk of the NDP. What you may not realize, though, is that such legislation already New Zealand. In fact, the Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson spoke favourably about it in a recent column:

In 2001, New Zealand adopted the Electoral Integrity Act, known colloquially as the "party hopping" or "whaka jumping" bill (a whaka being a large Maori war canoe). The bill's provisions expired in September but are being reintroduced. They are meant, in the bill's own words, "to enhance the integrity of the electoral system" by not allowing MPs to switch parties during a Parliament. [...] No switching is allowed, in other words, and that's the way it should be in a democratic system.
The context for the New Zealand law was actually quite different from the situations that have sparked this debate in Canada. The first thing we have to understand is that back in 1996, New Zealand underwent a major electoral reform, switching from the first-past-the-post system presently used in Canada to a mixed-member proportional system very similar to the one first used in Germany. As a part of this reform, their parliament was divided into MPs who represent ridings and MPs who owe their seats to their position on a party list. Because of this, if any MP decides to flee their party, the proportionality of the entire parliament is disrupted. With list MPs, this is arguably an even more problematic issue than with people like David Emerson, since they are chosen specifically to represent their parties rather than to represent ridings. Despite the differences, though, looking at New Zealand may be able to help Canadians look at this issue with more level heads than perhaps have been used in the past week. This kind of dispassionate observation can help us figure out, in practical terms, how desirable such a law might be in Canada.

First, a bit of history: There were several cases of party-hopping that led to the introduction of the law. The first occurred in mid-1997, only a few months after New Zealand's first election under the new proportional voting system. One list MP from the left-wing Alliance party decided to quit her party and sit as an independent. Although she had signed a party pledge to resign from parliament if she left her party, a non-partisan committee ruled that this wasn't enforceable. This led several other MPs to defect in subsequent months: one more from the left-wing Alliance party, and another handful from the centrist New Zealand First party, who quit when that party's coalition agreement with the right-wing National party failed. The opposition parties were understandably angered by this situation, and vowed to introduce legislation to prevent party-hopping in the future. After the next election, the centre-left Labour party and the left-wing Alliance party formed a coalition government, and together they introduced the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill.

The terms of this bill were strict: MPs who chose to leave their parties would be considered to have resigned from parliament at the time that they notified the Speaker of their intention to surrender their party memberships. In addition, because of the concern that MPs might theoretically opt to stay in parliament by refusing to resign from their parties, the bill also gave a party's parliamentary members the right to force an MP's resignation if it looked like that MP's behaviour would distort the proportionality of party representation in parliament. A riding MP who quit or was forced out would face an immediate by-election, while a list MP in the same circumstances would be replaced by the next person on the list. In order to expel a given MP from the party, two-thirds of that party's parliamentary members would be required to agree that this should occur. Seems straightforward enough.

When we look at the situations in which this legislation has been applied, though, there seems to be some cause for concern. In fact, in practice it often seems to achieve the opposite outcome from what it was intended to produce. For example, when the left-wing Alliance party disintegrated, the leadership ended up being split, with one person serving as the leader inside parliament and another person serving as the leader outside of it. When the parliamentary leader shocked everyone by announcing that he was going to form a new party, he should have, under the new law, been forced to resign and run in a by-election. But because he managed to retain control over two-thirds of the party's ten MPs, he got to stay in parliament and continue to lead the entire group under the new banner. In another example, the far-right ACT party attempted to expel one of their list MPs over a financial scandal, but the letter of the anti-floor-crossing law dictated that an MP could only be expelled if the MP staying on would distort the proportionality of parliament. Since this particular MP insisted that she would continue to support her former party's policies in parliament, they were forced to keep her around as well.

The New Zealand examples show that an anti-floor-crossing law crafted without sufficent attention to potential loopholes can end up being worse than the situation it was designed to fix. If our current parliament does end up choosing to entertain similar legislation, I hope they will put some intense focus on the lessons that can be learned from New Zealand, so that we won't end up falling into the same traps.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Emerson vs. Fortier

Okay, explain this to me. I get why the voters of Vancouver-Kingsway are so upset, and they have every right to demand Emerson's resignation. But why is Emerson the story that keeps on ticking, while Fortier's getting mentioned only as an afterthought, if at all?

Is crossing the floor really that much worse than having an unelected Minister of Public Works who can't be held accountable during Question Period? Really?

Saturday, February 11, 2006


I realize you people have little reason to trust an immigrant over dozens of Canadian-born Canadians on this issue, but please believe me: the term is 'by-election,' not 'bi-election.' That latter term would be...well, I don't know what it would be, exactly, but definitely something else!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Politics and principle

As the name of this blog suggests, my political philosophy tries to be about maintaining a balance between idealism ("this is the way things should be") and pragmatism ("this is the way things are likely to be"). But as this blog's tagline also suggests, I find it all too easy to chuck both out the window and give in to my inner cynic. And this week, "resisting the pull of cynicism" has been particularly difficult.

Why resist, I hear some of you asking. In our culture, the cynics are the cool ones. No one ever rolls their eyes at a cynic--and besides, they've got the coolest clothes and all the best music. But cynicism is a profoundly lazy way of looking at politics. Scornfully believing that this whole endeavour is worthless because all public servants are scumbags and only out for personal gain--that's no less simplistic and naive than believing that everything will always turn out all right in the end. It takes a lot more brainpower to see politicians as human beings, each with a complex mixture of noble and self-serving goals, and evaluate each individual political act as it comes along instead of lumping it all into a single pile of suck at the first sign of unpleasantness. After a week like this one, though--after watching a prime minister whose whole campaign was about ethics and cleaning up government not only dismiss his own personal ethics, but blindly defend his poor choices over and over again just like our last prime minister always did--it's taken all my brainpower not to say "well, screw them all, then." And I'm not even a Conservative.

I tried to write a post earlier this week about how heartening it was to see so many of the Blogging Tories put aside partisanship and condemn the acts of David Emerson, Michael Fortier, and most of all, Stephen Harper. But the thing is, it wasn't heartening--it was sad. I feel terrible for all these people who had truly believed something extraordinary was going to happen with this government, many of whom worked long hours in their local campaigns, only to have their hopes crushed on the very first day. And the fact that so many of them are slipping into blind "screw them all" cynicism as the week stretches on only makes it harder to watch.

Enter Garth Turner, blogger and newly elected Member of Parliament for Halton:

I have written here many times over the past few months about my journey to become an MP again, and why I wanted to return to Ottawa. It was not to be a minister with a limo, but, as I explained, to try and empower elected people more, to make them relevant and free, so the voters would also become more empowered. And I campaigned to advance issues my middle class voters are so concerned with – things those families need and want.

But, I arrived as the prime minister was appointing a floor-crossing Liberal and an unelected party official to his cabinet, which seemed to fly in the face of everything I had told voters about accountability and democracy. It also made me question the whole process, after eight months of knocking on doors to win my coveted seat in this magnificent stone building on the banks of the Rideau.

Going from door to door turns a politician into a democrat. At least, it did for me. By the time I got to Parliament Hill, I was infused with the spirit of a new era in government, sated on the belief we would see freedom reign in the Chamber and that the days of subjugation of MPs by the prime minster’s office were numbered. I had swallowed with gusto promises of more free votes, more powerful committees of free-thinking MPs, more listening to the voters, and an elected and responsible Senate.

And, most importantly, I had taken that to the people. Change. The election was about change. I asked people in Halton to embrace the Conservatives as a modern, inclusive, mainstream, principled party of honest people committed to changing the system for the better. Finally. Something worth knocking on doors for in the dark and the cold. Something to believe in. Something to run for. Something on the Hill worth coming back for with a passion.

Sure, I thought the appointment of those two ministers was questionable. And after stating many a time that Belinda Stronach should have sought a by-election after her defection, how could I not say the same obvious thing now? It was simple for my constitutents to understand, and simple for me. I did not seek the microphones out, but when they were under my nose and a clear question was asked, I gave a clear answer.

Everybody who makes up the government should be elected. They should be elected as members of the party that forms the government. Anybody who switches parties should go back to the people. To do otherwise is to place politicians above the people when, actually, it’s the other way around.
If you read the comments on that post, you'll find that he's taking flak not only from his leader and his caucus, but also from many of his readers. But whether you agree with Turner's view of this week's events or not, and whether you agree with his decision to go public or not, you have to admit that his message is a powerful one that will outlast Emerson, Fortier, and even Harper. He's saying that loyalty to the people who gave him their votes is more important than loyalty to the powers that be. He's saying that when gamesmanship conflicts with principle, there's no contest. And most of all, he's saying that despite the beating his worldview has taken this week, he's not going to give in to the pull of cynicism.

This idealistic pragmatist salutes him.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Back to plan A

Just before the election call last November, I argued that it would be worse for the Liberals to be reelected than it would be to end up with a Tory minority government. My reasoning was that the Conservatives wouldn't actually be good for the country, but that in a minority they would be harmless buffoons, and the time away from the governing benches would give the Liberals a chance to regroup and fix themselves. And as a bonus, buffoon-bashing would make for good sport for comedians and bloggers alike.

Somewhere along the line, though--I'm not sure exactly when, but I'm sure it was by the time James Bow started talking about Conservative-NDP cooperation--I started feeling hopeful that a Tory minority government, working together with more progressive parties, might actually be able to accomplish a couple of useful things while the Liberals got their act back together. Ethics would certainly be an area where the two poles on the Canadian political spectrum could compromise enough to agree, right? And then there's my very own pet issue, democratic reform--if the NDP could be brought around to the Conservative plans for Senate reform, then maybe, just maybe, the Tories would be willing to see the light on proportional representation?

So how's my faint yet fervent hope for a productive session shaping up now that the country is faced with a real live Tory minority government? Well, since assuming office on Monday, Harper has done the following:

  • appointed an unelected party bagman from Québec to the Senate (after arguing for a decade that Senators should only ever be elected)
  • handed that same unelected party bagman the Ministry for Public Works--the cabinet position that's virtually synonymous with the sponsorship scandal--which is a decision that renders the opposition unable to take him to task in Question Period for anything might happen in that ministry for the duration of this government
  • enticed a former Liberal cabinet minister to cross the floor in exchange for another top position (after being very vocal in his criticism of Belinda Stronach for doing something similar in reverse last spring)
  • appointed a Defence Minister who's a former defence lobbyist, and
  • appointed a Justice Minister who plans to bypass Parliament to get rid of the gun registry and who's pleaded guilty to violating election laws in Manitoba.
Well. So much for that ethics plan.

How about democratic reform, though? Well, we know that Harper passed over his own former Democratic Reform critic and avid supporter of proportional representation Scott Reid--who didn't even get a parliamentary secretary post--in favour of Niagara Falls' Rob Nicholson. That was a bit of a blow for us electoral reformers, but maybe this Nicholson character is okay, too?

As it turns out, not so much. As a stand-in member of the House Committee studying electoral reform in the last parliament, he once asked the following question of Law Commission of Canada president Nathalie Des Rosiers:
Let me put to you one of the problems that may arise with a system wherein one-third of the members of the legislature or the House of Commons would be prepared by party list.

I put to you the criticism that I've heard from the European experience on this. A couple of European countries have one variation of this or another. One of the criticisms that I remember hearing years ago was that if you have a system in which a party puts out a list and elects the members on the basis of its percentage of the national vote, there are some who say there is a problem for democracy inasmuch as the people don't get an opportunity to say yea or nay on particular candidates.

I'll give you an example. If you are in the top five, I would suppose, of any of the major political parties of this country, it means the Canadian electorate can never get at you, because no matter how poorly your party does, if it comes up with 5% of the vote, you get the top [...] Presumably, if there were a hundred members, for instance, your party would always get 5% of those. There are those in Europe who say this is undemocratic, that we cannot get at some of these old party hacks who have no connection to the electorate other than that they are in solid with their political party and they just stay on forever. That would be one of the criticisms, it seems to me, and one of the challenges that we would have to answer for Canadians. Could you address that?
Never mind that there are many established methods for assembling party lists--including primary elections and using the "best seconds" from riding races--which can hardly be described as "undemocratic." To Nicholson, party lists must inherently smack of cronyism and a lack of democracy. Strike one.

At the same meeting, then, our new Democratic Reform minister tried again:

There are those who would argue that the three major democracies in the world that have the first-past-the-post system, with some variations, are Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. There are also those who can make a pretty strong argument that those have been the most successful, or among the most successful, democracies in the world. As a matter of fact, I think I would be hard pressed to come up with any other countries outside of those three that have a longer democratic tradition than Britain and Canada and the United States.

There are those who would say that if you alter the system, you would be building instability, and that instability has been a great problem in the world in terms of the economy and a host of other problems, and that if we traded our particular system for some other system, we will have unstable government and we will be buying into a different type of system that doesn't have a record as successful as the one that we have. I ask for your comment on that.
Never mind that there is no evidence whatsoever to support the "instability" contention under either Mixed-Member Proportional (Germany's system) or Single Transferable Vote (Ireland's system), which are the only two PR-based systems that have been proposed for Canada. To Nicholson, PR must necessarily be synonymous with Italy, and all hail the status quo that allows the vast majority of votes cast to disappear into the ether. Strike two.

As if that weren't bad enough, over at, the former campaign manager for one of the candidates who ran against Nicholson reports that Nicholson didn't just evade questions on proportional representation during the campaign--as many people in the bigger parties tend to do when they don't want to come off as mere political opportunists only interested in their party's success--but actively defended the first-past-the-post system by arguing that proportional representation would eliminate direct constituency representation. Never mind that there's not a single electoral reformer proposing that Canada adopt the kind of pure list system that he's talking about--both of the possible models proposed for Canada include direct constituency representation. To Rob Nicholson, our newly appointed Minister for Democratic Reform, democratic reform consists only of changes that might help the Conservative party win a phony majority for themselves in the next election. Strike three, you're out.

So it's back to plan A. The advantages of a Tory minority government consist solely of giving the Liberals their time out and ample opportunities for buffoon-bashing. There is a bright side, though: if Harper's first week as prime minister is any indication, there will be more than enough buffoonery in this government to keep the bloggers and comedians occupied for the next little while.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Some posts you might have missed

I'm feeling uncharacteristically unchatty, but there are some real gems out there that you might not have seen, written by some decidedly underread bloggers:

Saundrie the Scotian argues that the Emerson defection is problematic, but it's the Fortier appointment that's the real ethical problem. I would tend to agree--if you want to show the country once and for all that you're the party of more than just pork and patronage, then appointing someone a) who's unelected, b) who doesn't have the intention to run until the next election, c) who makes your rhetoric about Senate reform look like a bunch of hot air, not just to cabinet but to PUBLIC WORKS, of all ministries...well, that would seem at the very least to be a lapse in judgment. Further to this, A BCer in Toronto explains exactly why B.C.'s James Moore got particularly shafted in these cabinet picks.

On the brighter side--at least for those of us who want to see this parliament do more than just make errors of judgment and scream at each other in Question Period--Greg Morrow from the election prediction site
discusses seven things the 39th parliament could achieve in its present configuration. Some of it, unfortunately, would be a bit of a bitter pill, but some of it is really quite positive. Have a look, especially those of you who have been feeling like hiding under the bed until the Tory menace has passed.

And speaking of things this parliament could achieve, Fair Vote Canada's president, Wayne Smith, outlines why a Conservative would want to support proportional representation. The answer shown by the numbers and his astute analysis of them is that the Tories are arguably losing out even more than the left is--but in the end the real answer is the same for the Conservatives as it is for everyone else: it would be better for Canada. [Edited to add that it looks like some have already taken Wayne Smith's words to heart. Laurie Hawn, the newly-elected MP for Edmonton-Centre, was the only candidate in his riding who evaded the issue of proportional representation during the election (while Liberal Anne McLellan and the NDP and Green candidates all spoke strongly in favour of it), but his constituent and fellow blogger Mari Sasano discovers that he's at least open to "looking into" it. Baby steps ...]

Monday, February 06, 2006

The NDP and the trap of our political culture

A piece by Rafe Mair in the Tyee tells the story of the collapse of the British Liberal Party and how, with help from their newly centrist and newly accepted Tories, it was supplanted by the Labour party as the party of the centre-left. Mair then goes on to propose that this is exactly the process that could be happening in Canada, with the NDP playing the role of the UK's Labour. I'm sure many NDP supporters were salivating over the suggestion that real power on the federal level is within their reach, but I don't share that particular brand of excitement. In fact, while some of you are planning the erasure of the Liberals from the federal scene, I'll be over here banging my head against the wall.

I've been scoffed at many times for this view. I've been told that I'm resigning the NDP to an eternity of third-party mediocrity, that I'm one of the ones holding the party back from achieving all they can achieve. Look, I'm an electoral reformer, okay? I don't think anybody can accuse me of being insufficiently willing to embrace substantive change. But the scenario outlined in Mair's article, whether likely or not, would be a terrible thing for Canada. I'd even go so far as to say that those on the left who think annihilating the Liberals would be a good thing are offering Canadians a frustratingly short-sighted view of what Canadian politics can be. There are far too many supporters of the NDP these days who are so busy priming the party to go for broke that they don't realize that they're actually going for broken.

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

I'm sorry, but don't want to be a part of that NDP. Heck, if I did want that, I'd join the Liberals now and skip all the steps in the middle--it would be a heck of a lot simpler, and at least there would still be a left-wing party in this country. The solution to the current problems among Canada's centre-left isn't replacing one natural governing party with another--it's electoral reform. I want to see an NDP that represents the 18% of Canadians who vote for them (or 20%, or 22%, or whatever it ended up being under a system where people actually voted the way they wanted to vote) and does it well. I want them to have precisely the amount of power the voters have given them, no more and no less. And most of all, I want an NDP that can play the role of representing left-wing voters in a parliament that requires compromise on all sides.

I realize this is hard to envision for many Canadians who've only known their own system, but politics really doesn't have to work the way it works in this country. It's not part of the nature of the political process to have politicians too busy going for each other's throats to actually run the country--it's the voting system that makes our politics so toxic. For those who doubt me on this, I'd recommend spending a little time reading up on how the stable democracies of Europe function. The entire political culture is different, from campaign advertising to governance. Cabinets consist not just of one party stretched thin, but members of multiple parties sitting side-by-side. Politicians work together to create stability and find creative solutions to their differences. Prime ministers work to win the trust not just of those in their own party, but of those beyond party lines as well.

This isn't some utopian fantasy, this is the day-to-day political reality of countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden, just to name a few. The politicians there are still fallible human beings, so the system doesn't always work exactly the way it's designed to, but it sure works that way a lot more often than our current system does. Switching to a system like this would be a huge adjustment for our politicians, who are used to a politics based on mistrust, animosity and back-stabbing, and the transition period would be incredibly difficult. But in the end, what we'd have is a Parliament that's not only more effective, but culturally far more suited to a country known more for its peacemaking and its pragmatism than for its nastiness and its unswerving ideologies.

Canada is a centrist country--inherently so. This is not just why the Liberals have become the "natural governing party" under the first-past-the-post electoral system, but also why Stephen Harper's Conservatives have had to move to the centre in order to achieve even a minority government. The fact of this country's centrism wouldn't change one iota under a system of proportional representation, so those on the left who are only supporting PR because they think it would make for a more leftist Canada can get that idea out of their heads right now. But with electoral reform, we have a real chance to transform the nature of that centrism. The kind of political culture that proportional representation fosters would move us from a centrism that depends on a single party to come up with every good idea and ignores all but the milquetoast middle, to one that requires parliament to look at the best ideas from all across the political spectrum and mold them into something that works for Canada. And the left could play a huge role in that--a far more crucial role than it would play if our only left-wing party drifted toward the centre in a kamikaze mission to demolish the Liberals.

That's the future I envision for the NDP. That's the future I envision for Canada.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Leading them astray once again

Confidential to the reader who just stopped by via the google search on "stop proportional representation": why don't you pull up a chair and stay a while? And read a few of the other results from that search while you're at it. Learning can be fun!

Freedom of the press?

I admit to being a little bit puzzled by the way the Muslim cartoons controversy has been portrayed by so many across the world as a freedom of the press issue. The freedom of the press is a legal right, and I haven't seen anyone, anywhere, suggesting that the newspapers in question didn't have the legal right to print those cartoons. In fact, it's quite clear that they did have that right, despite the fact that several of those countries have more limitations on press freedom than are comfortable for many Americans. This makes the question far more one of whether it was wise or prudent for these newspapers to print the cartoons, and it's there that the issue steps out of the realm of black and white and into various shades of grey. I mean, it's perfectly legal for me to walk up to strangers on the street and tell them how ugly they are, too, but I think we'd all agree that if I did that, I'd be...what do they call it? Oh, yeah, an asshole.

But people seem to want to debate the freedom of the press, so fine, I'll bite. I grew up an American, and as such, I always had a typically knee-jerk American view of press freedom: invulnerable, absolute, and most of all, unquestioned. I even maintained this view well into my time in Canada--nothing but nothing should ever get in the way of the media reporting on whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. If something did, well, that was just an example of the inferiority of the countries that allowed such a horror to happen. But then came the Tale of Two Inquiries: the Valerie Plame inquiry in the United States and the Gomery inquiry in Canada. Happening at around the same time, and both involving an investigation into potential misconduct by the federal government, they provided a fascinating study in contrasts that shook the very foundation of my neat little ideology.

First, Canada. Openness was regarded as paramount in the Gomery inquiry, in large part because secrecy had been a contributing factor to the corruption being investigated. Testimony was completely public, and was not only reported on in the media, but broadcast whole-cloth to Canadian living rooms. However, a few times throughout the inquiry, someone was asked to testify when their own trial was imminent, and it was clear that the person's right to a fair trial might be jeopardized by his Gomery testimony. In these cases, the judge imposed a temporary publication ban on anything relating to these pieces of testimony. What this meant was that reporters were still allowed to be present for the hearings, but they weren't allowed to publish their stories until the ban was lifted. An imposition on Canadians' right to a free press? Absolutely. But it was a temporary one, and with time all of the facts came out--there was no way they couldn't, with so many journalists in the room.

Contrast this with the U.S.-led Plame inquiry, which was conducted entirely under lock and key. National security concerns were cited as the reason for not making the information publicly available--and given that the inquiry involved a CIA operative, those seemed at least as justified as Gomery's concerns about fair trials. But because free speech is ideologically absolute in the U.S., there was no way to prevent the offending information from getting out other than by sealing the entire inquiry away from the public eye, permanently. The flaw in this solution would seem obvious. Cloaking the information results in more, not less secrecy, and less, not more information being transmitted to the public. But the Americans didn't seem to mind--at least no journalists had had to hold their tongues for a few weeks, right? The ideology of the freedom of the press was maintained, so who cares whether there was anything to report about?

Are there problems with the Canadian solution? Well, yes. If you step back from pure ideology, you'll see that there are real, practical problems with publication bans. In an increasingly digital world with a public, internationalized internet, a publication ban ties the hands of Canadian journalists without actually preventing the information from getting out for the duration of the ban. Since Canadians were still allowed to attend the hearings during the ban, the testimony could easily be passed on to people outside of Canada, who could--and did--publish it on blogs where internet-savvy Canadians could read it. Heck, I read it myself. There probably weren't enough internet-savvy Canadians in the spring of 2005 to really make a difference to anyone's fair trial, but will that still be true in five years, ten, twenty?

What it comes down to is that in a worst-case scenario, this kind of development results in a failure to protect the people the ban was imposed to protect. And while this new Canadian has seen the light and is now willing to see the freedom of the press temporarily suspended when it's absolutely necessary, I'm not willing to see it suspended for a sham. Worse than a sham, really--what the publication ban ended up meaning was that Canadians did see reporting on the banned testimony, but only from the perspective of a handful of conservative American bloggers, while the only people who actually had enough knowledge of Canada to interpret the situation were obliged to sit on their hands. That was hardly the intention. I therefore hope that publication bans will soon go the way of the dodobird--not for ideological reasons, but for practical ones. On the other hand, if publication bans are replaced with a solution that ends up being identical to the U.S. solution of not allowing the information to be transmitted to reporters in the first place, then that will be far more damaging to the public's right to know than the original conception of the publication ban was. I'd like to think Canada will be able to come up with another made-in-Canada solution that actually works in the digital age. Here's hoping.

While I may have been born an American and injected with American values throughout my early life, when confronted with real-world examples, it was hard not to see how illogical an absolutist ideology of the freedom of the press can end up being in practice. What matters in the long run--what has to matter in the long run--isn't the noble ideals behind a right, but how that right actually works within a society. And when the ideology behind the freedom of the press is regarded as more important than the actual transmission of information to the public, the U.S. constitution becomes nothing more than hot air and pretty words.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The addict and the pusher

At the end of January each year, the U.S. President gives a pomp-and-circumstance, sabre-rattling speech called the State of the Union. This year's was no different, and as ever, it was filled with items that had left-wing America giggling (a call for a prohibition against creating human-animal hybrids) or nervous (talking about Iran with very similar rhetoric once used about Iraq).

But for those of us who have spent any time at all considering the peak oil problem, there was only one true shocker: the moment when the most internationally out-of-touch, most ideologically right-wing U.S. President in our lifetimes admitted the U.S.'s powerlessness over its addiction to oil and proposed a twelve-step program to overcome it:

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.

The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly 10 billion dollars to develop cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources -- and we are on the threshold of incredible advances. So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants; revolutionary solar and wind technologies; and clean, safe nuclear energy.

We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips, stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years. Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment … move beyond a petroleum-based economy … and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.
"Cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources?" A new "Advanced Energy Initiative" with the goal of "moving beyond a petroleum-based economy"? I mean, sure, some of these ideas are patently ridiculous, like the so-called "zero emission coal-fired plants," and he's clearly thinking more of the security of the United States than he is of the future of the planet. But still, doesn't it just make your heart race? (Both in excitement and in fear, that is--because when an oil baron like George W. Bush starts sounding like an anti-fossil-fuel activist, you know the situation's got to be pretty dire.)

But every addict has his pusher. Like a crack dealer smelling the blood of a junkie with a tentative big toe on the path to recovery, Alberta's Energy Minister responded to Bush's cry for help with an alternative solution. You don't actually have to kick the oil habit, he said. If it's gotten too dangerous for you to venture into the ghetto for your daily fix, how about looking north instead? Why suffer through the inevitable withdrawal that would accompany a real commitment to recovery when you can just turn to your friends the Canadians? We're even located in a squeaky-clean part of town, so there's no chance of running into those ruffians with suicide bombs and funny accents!

And like any junkie choosing between the long, hard road of recovery and the easy way out, America responded. This morning's Edmonton Journal is reporting that the U.S. Department of Energy has changed its tune from the bold statements from the State of the Union: They're predicting that "crude oil from Alberta's oilsands -- not alternative energy sources such as biomass ethanol -- will help halve America's dependence on overseas oil within two decades." How delightful. Maybe this will mean Albertans can expect another $400 handout while the planet goes to pot.

It's a fine little story, really. George Bush is the brave junkie with dreams of a future without his addiction, and the Canadians are the dashers of hopes with nothing but profit in mind. Up is down, black is white, and the idealistic pragmatist who was thrilled to leave the U.S. behind almost nine years ago is hiding under her bed, wibbling, and wondering when the world is going to right itself again.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Good move, bad move

On the day after the election, the Toronto Star was hopeful: "With the death of the Liberal government, now begins the first real chance for Liberal renewal in 12 years." Many bloggers--of all political stripes--agreed. Calgary Grit saw the defeat as a "chance to rebuild the Big Red Machine." In the post-election edition of the Bloggers' Hotstove podcast, Conservative supporter Bob Tarantino from Let It Bleed talked about how he envied the Liberals their chance to put the focus on something positive and exciting like a leadership race and a policy convention.

So how's that renewal looking, after the first just-shy-of-two-weeks? The verdict is...decidedly mixed.

Frank McKenna not running for the leadership: good move. I have nothing against McKenna personally, but Martin's leadership team announcing their support for him before the election had even ended really didn't bode well for anything but a coronation. I'm with Calgary Grit that a more open race has a better chance of leading to real renewal.

Bill Graham as interim leader: good move. Graham is a Liberal stalwart who falls squarely into neither the Chretienite nor the Martinite camps, so he's got the chops without too much baggage. He's also not a contender for the actual leadership, so he can actually get down to the business of being the opposition leader without the media and the bloggers buzzing around him like flies. (And of course, it certainly doesn't hurt his standing in my eyes that he's a supporter of Mixed-Member Proportional representation who has lent his signature to the Fair Vote Canada petition.)

Paul Martin staying on as figurehead until the convention: bad move. There may be "tradition" as a precedent, but the decision simply makes no sense. If he's really turning the reins over to Graham, as he insists, then this only leads to needless speculation about a possible Trudeau-esque phoenix act, which can be nothing but damaging at this point. And if he's not really turning the reins over to Graham, then...well, he should.

Tim Murphy being hired by Graham as chief of staff: bad, bad move. As pogge reminds us, Murphy didn't exactly emerge from the whole Grewal affair smelling like a rose (remember the "welcoming mat with lots of comfy fur on it"?). Is this the start of Martin's backroom guys letting their top dog take the fall for the whole gang while they continue slinking about the corridors of power? Let's hope not.