Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A day on Alberta Avenue

For most of yesterday I first volunteered at, then attended events at the second annual Arts Alive festival. It's a festival with a fascinating history. It all began when a bunch of local artists (musicians, visual artists, theatre people, etc.) started growing past their bohemian phase and found themselves wanting to settle down somewhere. But unfortunately, they were poor artists, so the only place they could afford to live in this boomtown is the poorest and most crime-ridden area of the city.

The thing was, as more and more of them bought homes there and decided to raise their kids there, they found they wanted more than just a place to hang their hats, and started forming a real community. They created a volunteer-run community coffee house and an artsy neighbourhood pub, they turned the building that used to house the bicycle shop (before it abandoned ship for less gritty parts of the city) into a theatre, they put up an absolutely stunning art gallery in another abandoned building. Slowly, a couple of downscale but undoubtedly yummy restaurants moved in. And then came the festival, where the neighbourhood artists all banded together to put on an event where all the hottest artists could show off their stuff. And the best part: everything is free, and everyone is invited, from fellow artists to street people.

If you want to understand why I love this city so goddamn much, you don't really need to look any further than this sort of thing, you know?

Anyway, it was great. I spent most of the day at the outdoor music stage, warmed at first by the bright fall sun and then later by the massive fire pits strategically placed throughout the parking lot of the community league. The audience was a little suspicious and at times frankly a little weird--they sat attentively on straw bales and watched and listened, but rarely applauded. But by the time local heroes Captain Tractor took the stage well after sundown, everybody was joined together along the fires, hanging out, meeting new people. I talked at length to a guy named John who, although not a local, had been driving through the neighbourhood on his way somewhere else and pulled over, thinking: "wow, I want to be a part of that!"

As for food, I had my free volunteer sandwich and my free latte in the coffee house for lunch, but splurged on dinner at this restaurant, which is, I dare say, the first outstanding Mexican restaurant in this city (even if the place was hopping so much that the food took too long to arrive, it was definitely worth the wait). The coffee house is wonderful, and though I didn't have a chance to check out the pub, it looked really inviting as well. I'm actually wishing the neighbourhood weren't so off the beaten path for me, because I'm finding myself wanting to go back. I suspect that's the point.

One fascinating thing was that nobody seemed to be able to praise their own neighbourhood without reference (usually negative) to "that other Ave," i.e., Whyte Avenue, or the main thoroughfare through my own neighbourhood of Old Strathcona. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I must have sat through a dozen teardowns of my own local haunts in the service to their cause. If it had bothered me, I'd probably have said something about how I was a pretty die-hard Old Strathconan, and here I was volunteering at their festival, so they could stick all the posturing in their collective ears. But mostly I just found it hilarious, and at the same time kind of sweet, because apparently they want to be us, only better. Frankly, they may yet succeed in that--their own "Ave" really is reminiscent of a much more rundown Whyte Ave to me, but with more of a "let's put our boutique shop or ethnic restaurant here because it's where we live, rather than putting it here because it's where the whole city hangs out" flair to it.

Besides, both areas are strongholds for the provincial NDP, so can't we all just get along? *grin*

When I was manning the merchandise table, one smiling guy came by to purchase a membership in the community arts organization that supports the festival. Making conversation, I asked him whether he lived in the area, and he said: "no, but I'd like to." Then he filled out the membership form, including his current address. It was in Bonnie Doon, the upscale southside neighbourhood just to the east of where I live. I think that pretty much says it all.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Liberals: zero to sixty in nine days

The Globe and Mail, September 28th, 2007: the Liberals are "ready for an election."

The Globe and Mail, September 19th, 2007: the Liberal team doesn't yet have the "capacity to run a by-election."

I am totally impressed. That has got to be the fastest election readiness team in the history of the world!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Mulcair mojo [updated]

Well, I'll be damned. When was the last time a shadow cabinet shuffle in the federal NDP made the national news? I have a sneaking suspicion the answer to that question is 'never.'

[Update: The Macleans interview this week is with Dawn Black, there's a big story in the Globe and Mail this morning, and the National Post is leading their election speculation story with the headline "NDP demands new government direction" (with the Bloc in paragraph seven and the Liberals in paragraph eight). I think we have a trend, folks.]

[October 1 update: From the Globe and Mail, more on Mulcair and the NDP. Hat tip to my fellow oxymoron at Accidental Deliberations.]

Why the status quo is REALLY scared of MMP

In the last couple of days, various pro-voting-reform forces have issued challenges to the leaders of the two biggest Ontario political parties. Liberals for MMP has demanded that Dalton McGuinty, the Liberal leader and current premier, make clear his position on MMP. At the same time, has called upon John Tory, the Conservative leader, to state that he would find a democratic process for electing "at-large" or "list" candidates if MMP were to pass. So far, neither leader has responded.

Common wisdom says that these two leaders are staying silent because they're scared they could lose seats under MMP, and therefore don't want to draw attention to the referendum at all because they're hoping it will fail. I don't buy that. Don't get me wrong--I agree that they're both hoping it will fail, and I agree that it's because they're scared. But they're scared of something much, much bigger than the possibility of losing a couple of seats. What they're really scared of is having to relearn everything they know about how to do their jobs.

See, in Canada we're used to single-party governments. Majority or minority, it doesn't matter--you've still only got one party in the driver's seat, one party that gets to put through their own ideas without any input from anybody else. This is a hugely powerful position to be in, and it promotes a mindless antagonism that you don't see in most other countries' politics. The party in government has to spend all its time trying to make the other guys look so bad that people won't vote for them next time, and the opposition has to spend all its time trying to do the same thing with the governing party so they can actually do more than dream of absolute power. The whole culture is set up this way: entire political careers are built on how best to rant and roar in ways that will make the other guys look bad (even if what they're doing is really not all that different from what your guys are doing), and if one of the other parties has a good idea, you've got to find some way--any way--to twist it enough to make it look like a bad one.

In places that have MMP, though, the norm isn't single-party governments at all. Instead, those places tend to have multi-party majority coalition governments. This means that the party that gets the most seats chooses a coalition partner to form a government with, allowing the two parties together to add up to more than 50% of the seats. After this happens, the parties reconcile their party platforms through compromise and work together as a single government to put their ideas into practice. This isn't some crazy concept that's only used by a few countries, either--this is the way government works in nearly all of the world's parliamentary democracies.

The result of this process is not only a stable governing body that was chosen by a majority of the voters, but a creative governing body that by necessity has to take ideas from a number of different viewpoints instead of refusing to look outside of their narrow box. This produces a radically different political culture from what we have in Canada: for example, if the winning party likes some of the ideas from another party's toolchest, they don't have to pretend they hate them--they can invite that other party to form government with them and put those ideas into practice together. And as far as the opposition parties are concerned, they still spend a lot of time criticizing the governing parties under this system--but suddenly it's actually about the actual places they disagree on policy, rather than just about trying to bolster their own fortunes.

If Ontario were to switch to MMP, the current antagonistic political culture would change. This means that all those political strategists whose careers have been built on things working the way they currently work would have to suddenly learn brand-new skills of negotiation and of compromise. Political leaders would have to start concentrating more on policy rather than simply on good rhetoric and showmanship. As you might expect, this scares the status quo to death. And I'm not just talking about the Liberals and the Tories, either--the NDP is just as much a part of that rigid, antagonistic status quo, and you can bet that they're scared too (they just think that the new system might give them a few extra seats, and that's worth the risk to them). All three of the entrenched parties would be facing a steep learning curve if this referendum were to pass, and they know it. And you better believe it's keeping them up nights.

But while this change would be scary as all get-out to the politicians who would have to relearn their jobs, just think of what a breath of fresh air it would be to the voters. Just think about it.

I have always said that the best and most important reason to switch to proportional systems like MMP is simple logic: a voting system that makes every vote count in a fair and straightforward way simply makes more sense than the one we have right now. All the other stuff like better representation for women and minorities, a possible increase in voter turnout, a decrease in the need for strategic voting, and a shift in our political culture--all those things are just bonuses. But what a bonus that last one would be, eh?

Hearing words

So 'Jena' is pronounced like 'Gina' and not like...well, 'Jena'?

Huh. Well, all right, then.

(I probably should stop getting all of my news through print sources, eh?)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Quebec poll: provincial and federal

Some interesting results from the latest CROP poll out of Québec:

The ADQ is the most popular party provincially. On the other hand, ADQ leader Dumont is polling well behind his party. (Didn't that used to be the other way around?)

59% would vote 'no' on a sovereignty referendum.

Federally, the NDP is now polling at 17% in Québec. This is only two points behind the Liberals, and it means that their numbers in Québec are approximately even with their numbers across the country now. A bit of this vote seems to be coming from the Liberals, but more of it is coming from the Bloc. And while the NDP got a sizable post-byelection bounce, the Conservatives did not.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Where's the education campaign?

Depressing Ontario electoral reform referendum thought for the day via Sometimes Fickle:

If you’re an Ontario voter and you’ve actually heard of MMP, then that probably means you’re a geek like me who’s interested in electoral reform. My guess is that the vast majority of Ontario voters don’t know about MMP, or know that they’ll have the chance to answer a referendum question concerning MMP come Oct. 10.

I thought the province would have rolled out its ‘neutral’ information campaign -- an impossibility, no? -- on the referendum by now. I’ve seen between zero and very few television or print ads on the referendum. And none of the ads have actually delved into any MMP details. Is any one else concerned?
Colour me concerned.

There's so much misinformation out there it makes my head spin, you know? And there's no official education campaign out there to counter it. And I can't help but think that if this effort fails to meet the 60% threshold for passage, it'll be because one too many otherwise intelligent individuals felt free to say "the new system would mean [insert misinformation about the newly proposed system here]!" when what they really meant was "my friend Bob, who doesn't know crap, told me that the new system would mean [insert misinformation about the newly proposed system here], and I took it for gospel."

Saturday, September 22, 2007

MMP and me

It occurs to me that some of you may not realize that I wasn't born a statistics-spouting, FAQ-writing, electoral reform geek--I was made that way. This post is that story.

When I was a young, politically-oblivious American teenager, I went over to Germany as an exchange student. I learned a lot of German, of course (which was the point), but as it turned out, it was also the beginning of my political education. Over the course of that year, I figured out that Germany had not two viable political parties, but four. I also figured out that some of the parties had to work together in order for anything to get done, because that was the only way they could add up to over fifty percent. And I also learned that this working together thing actually seemed to work for them--it actually produced policies that most of the country agreed with. What a wonderful thing this 'parliamentary democracy' thing was.

I didn't fully understand what their voting process looked like until a little later, when I was living there again immediately following German unification and the government put together a "this is how you vote!" program for the benefit of the rapidly democratizing East Germans. Your ballot has two votes, the program explained. On one side of the ballot, you mark the person you want as your local representative. On the other side, you pick the political party you like best. The East German first-time voters understood it quickly, and so did I--in fact, it intuitively made sense to me. It meant that if I were German and I liked that nice Mr. Schmidt and wanted him to represent me in Parliament, but in my heart of hearts, I really wanted to give my vote to a different party, I could do both. What a truly wonderful thing this 'parliamentary democracy' thing was.

Now, by the mid-80s, I knew I didn't want to live in the U.S. for the rest of my life--and frankly, a lot of that had to do with my early exposure to a political system that was clearly superior to the one I'd grown up with. But by the early 90s, I knew Germany was always going to remain a flirtation for me as well. By then I spoke the language as if it were my own and had loads of wonderful friends, but there were certain bits of me that were just too North American to ever feel truly at home there. So when I ended up in Ottawa during the 1993 federal election, I was ripe for seduction--and boy, oh boy did this country seduce me. I loved its bilingualism, its multiculturalism, the diversity of its political landscape. And that election...oh. Pure heroin to any budding political junkie.

And then came the results. The Liberals ascendant, the Bloc Québécois and Reform as strong regional forces, the NDP holding on for dear life, and most fascinatingly, the ruling Progressive Conservatives reduced to two seats (or less than 1% of the 295 seats). Everyone was shocked, but I was dumbfounded. Even the most pessimistic polls over the last few days of the campaign had seen the Tories in the low twenties or high teens--how the hell could they have suddenly gotten less than 1% of the vote? Didn't Canada have that 'parliamentary democracy' thing--you know, that thing where you vote for your local representative separately and the party vote determines the seat percentages?

It took me weeks--after I'd long since returned to the U.S.--to figure it all out. I learned that while the Progressive Conservative vote had gone down by a lot, they'd actually still gotten a perfectly respectable 16%. Which put them only a couple of percentage points behind the Reform Party...but somehow, Reform had gotten 50 more seats than them. And more confusing still was the Bloc, which had somehow managed to form the Official Opposition with only 14% of the vote. It quickly became clear that this wasn't my nice familiar German parliamentary democracy; this was some bizarro parliamentary democracy in which 16% meant two seats, but 19% meant 52 and 14% meant 54. Um. Okay, then!

Finally, someone was able to explain to me that it was the voting system that had made the difference; that the way it worked in Canada was simply different from how they voted in Germany. But even after I'd had it explained to me, it continued to baffle me. The Canadians had a parliamentary democracy, which as far as I was concerned was the most sensible political system in the world. So why did they want to screw that up with this weird voting system that clearly could produce such skewed results? Why didn't they do it the way the Germans did--it would be so easy and so clear! And then the polls everybody talked about during their campaigns would actually mean something!

Despite the fact that the Canadian voting system freaked me the hell out, the bug I'd caught during that trip stuck with me anyway, and so when it came time to apply for a permanent position a couple years later, I went after one in Edmonton and got it. I came to love this place as my home. But every once in a while my new Canadian friends and I would talk about elections, and I'd explain to them how things worked in Germany. Every time, they would emerge from our discussion asking the same questions I'd been asking for years: why did Canadians use such a screwy system when a far more sensible alternative was available? I did a little reading, and learned that the system I liked was called mixed-member proportional or MMP, while the one I didn't like was called first-past-the-post. And eventually, I learned that there was an organization called Fair Vote Canada that was trying to change things for the better. I joined up, I started blogging, and here I am.

Which brings us to today, just a few weeks before October 10th. October 10th, when the people of Ontario have a chance to change the system from one in which 16% sometimes means two seats and 14% sometimes means 54, to the one that's impressed me since I was fifteen for its simple, clear, and fair results. To say that this is a historic opportunity is a huge understatement. It seems that when people are truly informed about the two choices and what they mean, they tend to prefer MMP--but I unfortunately don't have the ability to inject the hands-on political education I got by living first in Germany and then in Canada into every Ontarian's brain. So I'm asking you to trust me a little on this: MMP really does work. It doesn't produce perpetual unstable minority governments, it doesn't make political parties into super-sized patronage machines, and it's not at all hard to understand.

Yes, it's different from what people are used to, and yes, that's scary. But it's even scarier to the status-quo politicians who have benefited under the current system, and are completely panicked about the prospect of having to learn to do their jobs differently. Don't listen to them. They haven't lived under MMP and really seen how it works, and I have. I know about all of the frightening scenarios that they want you to believe--the ones that could, in some alternate universe, potentially produce some scary result like parties taking control and stacking parliament with people who owe them favours. But the thing is, they're talking about what's theoretically possible, and MMP really doesn't work that way in practice. And even if that alternate universe somehow came to pass, none of those scenarios are scarier than things that have already happened in Canada as a direct result of the system we already have.

It's long past time for a change. Make history, Ontario. Make me proud.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Pragmatism: what it isn't, what it is

At the bloggers' gathering in Waterloo this past summer, I had an interesting discussion with one of the other attendees about the NDP. He'd previously been a New Democrat himself, but had recently turned to the Green Party because he felt that the NDP under Jack Layton had become "too pragmatic" (which he said like it was a dirty word). This had my attention immediately--I mean, turning away from the NDP is one thing, but dissing pragmatism? Them's fighting words!

Inspired by my fine Ontario friend, then (albeit a few months late), here's my perspective on some common Canadian misunderstandings of what pragmatism is, followed by my thoughts on what it actually is.

Pragmatism is NOT political expediency. Doing whatever it takes to get elected is about a lust for power, not about finding practical solutions to society's ills.

Pragmatism is NOT a lack of ideology. If you don't know what you stand for, where does your search for solutions even begin?

Pragmatism is NOT cynicism. The scornful negativity of cynicism may be currently in vogue, but it's hardly a tried and true way of successfully solving problems.

Pragmatism is NOT centrism. This one is going to be especially hard for Canadians, I suspect, but it's true--not all centrists are pragmatists, and not all pragmatists are centrists. And there are many pragmatic solutions to problems that don't fall at the midpoint on a left-right continuum.

What pragmatism actually is, then, is choosing solutions to policy problems based on what has been shown to work in your own jurisdiction, or in another province or country with similar circumstances. The initial search for solutions will, of course, be driven by ideology, so that someone from the left might latch onto trying to solve the problem of homelessness, while someone from the right will tend to latch onto trying to solve the problem of wasteful government spending. If both are pragmatists, though, then they won't simply be looking for justifications for the solution their ideology is pushing them toward; they'll be examining a whole series of different things that have been tried in the past and evaluating those attempts in terms of how well policy goals were met.

The principles of pragmatism go something like this: your ideals drive your search for solutions, and in the process of that search you look not only in your own backyard, but beyond your ordinary horizons. But if no existing solutions can be found that conform to your own ideals, you turn to the next best thing rather than either a) promoting ideals with no good solutions or b) creating something new that hasn't yet been tested. A pragmatist's ideology can actually be quite radical in one direction or another, but the difference between the pragmatist and the pure ideologue is that in the cases where the pragmatist's ideology turns out to be consistent only with solutions that haven't been shown to work in the past (or ones that haven't yet tested in real-life situations), he or she will reluctantly promote tried-and-true solutions that aren't entirely consistent with that ideology.

It's an empirical philosophy, and a cautious one, and it sees ideology as a flashlight rather than as a homing beacon. It suits me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Why the Liberals should be secretly rooting for the Bloc

The Liberals may have lost three by-elections on Monday, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the big losers were actually the Bloc. Conservatives and New Democrats are understandably happy about this--they profited from it directly in Roberval and Outremont, respectively--but Liberals are claiming this as a silver lining, as well. Stéphane Dion said that he was "pleased" to see that "most voters voted for parties that believe in Canada," and Liberal bloggers are echoing this sentiment. When it comes to holding the country together, a strong Bloc is seen as the enemy of Canada, and so any federalist party will do in a pinch.

The problem is that when it comes to partisan politics, a strong Bloc is also the very direct enemy of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, and a weak or absent Bloc (counter-intuitive as it may seem) is a thorn in the side of anyone who can only stomach Harper as long as he's held to a minority. Why? Because it is the Bloc that is standing in the way of Harper and his pals being able to form a "majority" government.

Now, before the partisan Liberals start dragging out the faulty "vote Liberal to stop Harper" line, let me make it crystal clear that this isn't about them--this is about the way our voting system works. Our first-past-the-post voting system is designed to manufacture a
"majority" government for a winning party that didn't actually get a majority of the vote, but with the Bloc seats removed from the national gameboard altogether, it's much harder for that system to do its job. Put those seats back into play for the parties that also have seats elsewhere, though, and first-past-the-post starts working as it's supposed to again. This means that if the Bloc vote really does collapse completely in the next federal election, it won't matter if a few of those seats go to Liberals, or to New Democrats, or both. Even dividing those seats up equally between the three federalist parties--an unlikely scenario at best--would manufacture a "majority" for Harper unless something goes desperately wrong for the Conservatives in the rest of the country.

I'm sure we won't be seeing any partisan Liberals openly supporting the Bloc anytime soon, but being the only party who didn't benefit from the Bloc's losses in Monday's byelection must put them in the strange position of secretly hoping that Québec sovereigntists manage to hold on to a good chunk of those seats. (Of course, there's always the alternative--but the federal Liberals have never shown much interest in pushing for that, now, have they?)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

So who is this Thomas Mulcair guy, anyway?

While the rest of our media can't even be bothered to spill a bit of ink on the man the day after his historic win, Macleans wins a big smooch from your friendly neighbourhood idealistic pragmatist for having done an in-depth interview with him back in June. I figured it might be of interest to those of you who are ready for a break from the Dion Deathwatch (I sure am).

Monday, September 17, 2007

Outremont won by Liberals' phantom opponent [updated]

The results are in: the NDP's Thomas Mulcair has managed to pull off a convincing win over the Liberals in the Québec riding of Outremont tonight, giving the party their second seat in the province ever.

So now the post-mortem begins. Given the direction things have been going in over the last few days, though, I think it's pretty safe to say that pundits and bloggers alike will pronounce this a failure of Dion's leadership, and chatter ad nauseum about what this means for the Liberals' fortunes. I can't help but notice that we seem to have entered a universe in which this historic NDP victory is All About The Liberals--not only were there accusations of sabotage and cries of incompetence, but the Toronto Star declared that "all eyes" were "on the Liberals", and today's big story in the Globe and Mail didn't mention the NDP until paragraph fourteen. Apparently, it's more interesting to hover like vultures circling the guy you think is likely to lose than it is to tell the story of the underdog who rose from the depths of the single- and low-double-digits to beat him.

Just imagine for a moment, though, that Outremont wasn't lost solely and exclusively because Ignatieff's camp has reignited old rivalries, because the crew on the ground in the Outremont Liberal offices was made up largely of buffoons, or even because Dion sucks rotten goose eggs through a bendy straw. Just imagine that there were additional factors that had--gasp!--nothing at all to do with the Liberals. Such as the fact that Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair are both very popular in Montreal. Such as the fact that Mulcair, as a former provincial Liberal environment minister who resigned over a conflict with his party's leadership, has a lot of positive name-recognition. And perhaps most importantly, such as the fact that the NDP has been fighting hard in Outremont since mid-summer, maintaining two hopping campaign offices, doorknocking and phoning and fundraising unceasingly, and simply organizing rings around the Liberal camp in every way.

I do realize that it's awfully hard to complain tonight, as a New Democrat--and believe me, I don't want to rain on anyone's parade. But as the numbers get picked over and analyzed within an inch of their life in the next few weeks, I'd like to urge everyone to remember that the Liberals actually had an opponent here. And that maybe--just maybe--this historic result had as much to do with that opponent's competence as it did with the Liberals' incompetence.

["Thank god somebody's seeing what I'm seeing" update: Politblogo agrees, as does the Jurist, and so does Tyler Kinch. Antonio from Fuddle Duddle, who lives in the area, admits that the Liberals were "outclassed" by the NDP, thereby proving that the only Liberal willing to do anything other than contemplate his own navel this morning is an ex-Liberal.

"I'd go even further back than mid-summer" update: Northern B.C. Dipper points out that this wasn't just about the NDP's ground game, either--this was a result of a years-long NDP strategy that's finally paid off. He's absolutely right, too; in fact, many of us who have helped organize campaigns in winnable ridings out west have been irritated with the party brass for focusing energy and resources and strategy on Québec when "we're winnable and they aren't." (Confidential to any higher-ups in the party who might be reading: You were right, we were wrong, and I have never been happier to eat crow than I am today. But we're next, right?)

"It's not either-or" update: James Bow summarizes this post with "Idealistic Pragmatist wishes the media would say the NDP won, rather than Dion lost." I counter with the following:

That's a bit of an oversimplification of what I said, isn't it? Of course they're going to analyze what happened last night for the Liberals, but you have to admit that if this were ANY other country and ANY other party, the loser would have been the sidebar rather than the only story. I mean, the networks didn't even show Mulcair's victory speech last night!

I know I shouldn't be surprised about this after so many years, but I have to admit that I am. Liberal entitlement is so institutionalized in this country that it persists even when "if the Liberals lost, it must mean they suck" narratives are the only alternative to taking a good long look at the party that beat them and how they WON.

Desperately seeking C/conservative

I wasn't a frequent commenter at Olaf's blog, but I was always a reader, and with his departure, the right flank of my reading list is decidedly smaller. Oh, sure, I've still got Political Staples and Waking Up On Planet X, and I'm not giving them up, but Greg's is more of a "daily news"-style blog, and Candace doesn't post nearly enough.

Any suggestions for additions? Specifically, I'm looking for a capital-or-small-C conservative who writes well, who thinks with his or her head instead of with his or her fingers, who makes me think, who's respectful of opinions other than his or her own, whose raison d'être for blogging isn't blind partisanship, and who's never used the word 'moonbat' except in a quote from someone else. Surely there must be at least one more of those?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Stéphane Dion, slogan snatcher

I'm actually not one of the many who think it will be All Dion's Fault[TM] if the Liberals lose Outremont on Monday--not when the NDP have such a strong candidate and have been working hard in the riding since before day one, and especially not when the Liberals don't seem to have run a proper campaign. But this bit from the Globe and Mail cracked me up, and so I can't resist a jab:

In a radio interview, Mr. Dion remained optimistic.

"It's not the tribulations of one day that will stop me. Some days are good, other days not as good, and you go forward and get results for people," he said.
Apparently, Dion believes that his best chance for beating the NDP in Outremont is co-opting the catchphrase for the NDP's 2006 campaign.

Friday, September 14, 2007


If you've been living under a rock, you might not know about the three by-elections going on in Québec right now, the most exciting of which is taking place in Montreal's Outremont. The Liberals, the defending champs, are pitted not against the Bloc Québécois, but against the NDP. And their star candidate, Thomas Mulcair, could actually win the seat for them.

Well, the first poll is out, and with 38% declaring for the NDP and 32% for the Liberals, it's going to be a close race. But the NDP is in the lead--who'd'a thunk it?

Proportional voting systems and voter turnout

One often-cited argument in favour of introducing some element of proportional representation into the Canadian electoral system is that it would raise the voter turnout. The case goes like this: If you average the turnout percentages for countries that have proportional electoral systems and compare that number with the average percentage in those countries that have our current system of first-past-the-post, the turnout is significantly higher in countries with proportional voting systems. This means that people are more likely to vote when they know their vote will count, and if we switched to a PR-based system, our turnout would go up, too.

This difference between FPTP countries and PR countries is real. The problem, though, is that it could be attributed to any number of factors, only some of which have to do with differing voting systems. For example, many of the small group of countries in the world that use first-past-the-post (e.g. Canada, the UK, the U.S.) have certain historical, cultural, and linguistic commonalities, any combination of which could be playing a role. And in New Zealand, which switched from our first-past-the-post system to a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system in 1993, the evidence even suggests that while voter turnout initially rose in response to the switch, it dipped back down to its previous levels once voters had gotten used to the new system.

This is why you won't find any strong statements about voter turnout in the things I've written in support of electoral reform, including my proportional representation FAQ and my post summarizing the six best reasons to support proportional representation in Canada. Simply put, the evidence suggesting that voter turnout would go up if Canada switched to a proportional electoral system is inconclusive at best, and I would rather not dilute all the solid arguments in favour of electoral reform with one weaker one.

Take heart, though, members of the current Yes to MMP campaign in Ontario. The loss of just one of the potential arguments you could make doesn't even make a dent in the long list of reasons why Ontario's proposed Mixed-Member Proportional system would be an improvement over first-past-the-post. And it doesn't change the fact that your arguments are far more grounded in research...and in reality...than the 'no' campaign's fearmongering is on a good day.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Democrats in translation

There was yet another debate among the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates last night. And for the benefit of the 28.1 million U.S. residents who speak Spanish as their first language, it was simultaneously translated into Spanish.

You might be thinking something like: "That makes sense. I mean, 28.1 million people--that's only a little less than the entire population of Canada." Or maybe, less charitably: "Yeah, so? Every word spoken in our House of Commons is simultaneously translated every day!" And you'd be right, about either of those things. The U.S. press, though, is treating this as a special American invention of this great new thing called the wheel.

From the Washington Post (and keep in mind that this is the lede):

The first presidential forum to be conducted in Spanish placed a couple of the Democratic participants in an uncomfortable position Sunday night: answering tough questions while simultaneously fiddling to make sure their earpieces didn't fall out and they could the hear the translation of the next question.
Imagine that! Having to answer tough questions while making sure their earpieces didn't fall out! What horrors those Americans put their presidential candidates through!

One niggling issue is undermining these fledgling acknowledgements that Americans don't live in a unilingual country, though. Because even though two of the candidates speak Spanish, they weren't allowed to speak it while on stage:
Univision required candidates to answer in English, because only New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) speak Spanish fluently. That prompted Richardson to criticize the network from the stage Sunday night.

"I'm disappointed today that 43 million Latinos in this country -- for them not to hear one of their own speak Spanish, is unfortunate," Richardson said. "In other words, Univision is promoting English-only in this debate."

He then switched to Spanish but was cut off by moderators Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas.
Sorry, Governor Richardson. We couldn't let you speak the language that the debate is being broadcast in--that's crazy talk. After all, it could mean that people might decide which candidate they're voting for based on whether or not that candidate has bothered to learn their language, instead of on whether or not they served in the military or how much money they spend on their hair.