Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

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.