Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Undemocratic?" Oh, that's just precious.

From the Canadian Press:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has guaranteed the survival of his minority Conservative government for at least another week and is imploring Canadians to reject what he says is an undemocratic and illegitimate coalition.

"The opposition has been working on a backroom deal to overturn the results of the last election without seeking the consent of voters,'' Harper said late Friday in the foyer of the House of Commons. "They want to take power, not earn it.'
Do you people really have to get an immigrant to explain to you how your system works? All right, fine, then.

You might have noticed at some point that when you go to the polls and draw your X, you're not actually getting to place that X next to the name of a party leader. This is because you're not actually voting for a party leader.

No, seriously, you're not. Your power is limited to voting for your MP. Really and truly.

Among other things, this means that Stephen Harper, in and of himself, did NOT win the 40th general election. Oh, he did win an election in Calgary-Southwest, fair and square, but last I checked, the voters of Calgary-Southwest hadn't been gifted with seekrit powers to choose the prime minister.

Now, it is the case that his party didn't just win the election in Calgary-Southwest, but a bunch of other elections, too. In fact, they won more elections than each of the other parties did. But calling that, in and of itself, "winning the election" is...not accurate. A strange and unique Canadian custom, yes. One that would completely flummox most residents of most of the world's parliamentary democracies, absolutely. But accurate? No.

Why? Let's look at the numbers. In the last election, Stephen Harper's party had the support of precisely 37.65% of Canadians. Now, our voting system turned that number into 46.4% through a kind of Seekrit Voodoo Magic known as First-Past-The-Post, but even our Seekrit Voodoo Magic isn't powerful enough to turn a 37.65 into a 50. And if it's not a 50, you can't say you won the election. Nobody can.

So how do we pick the government when our voting system doesn't produce an outright winner? Well, we don't, actually. The group of people who won the smaller elections get to do that. That's what that there phrase "parliamentary democracy" means. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

If you live in Canada, you tend to solve this dilemma by collective delusion. Together, all of the politicians, all of the media, and all of the voters, decide to say: "What, 46.4% isn't 50%? Details! U R Da Winnar, Mistar Harpar!!! Here, have the whole country to do with as you please!!!"

But if you live in a sane country, like...well, pretty much any other parliamentary democracy in the democratic world, you say: "Ooh, goody for Mr. Harper! His party's got more seats than everybody else, and he's that party's leader! He's won the right to pick the additional set of MPs that gets to help form government with his MPs!" And if for some reason he can't or won't do that, they look for a different set of 50% or more who can, and will.

You might notice that our Mr. Harper skipped this step. Funny, I noticed that, too. It's a pretty powerful collective delusion, what can I say.

But powerful as it is, it is still a delusion. And if a larger portion of those people we elected can get together and say: "Um, pardon us, but the emperor has no clothes you've only got 46.4%," then the delusion kind of collapses. And if they can also add: "And we have 37%, and together with that other group of MPs who are willing to support us, we actually add up to 52.9%", well...then the election finally has a real winner.

Because '52.9' is not just a bigger number than '46.4'--it's also more than 50. And if you can get to more than 50? Well, that's how you actually win an election in this system of ours, without a collective delusion to help you along. (And for that matter, if you take our Seekrit Voodoo Magic out of the picture and look at the real numbers, you get 54.42%. Which is also more than 50%, and certainly more than 37.65%. A lot more.)

Now, you can call this crazy. You can call it silly, or ridiculous, or even unfair. Some of those things I might even agree with, on a bad day. But if you call it undemocratic, you are saying that 52.9 is not, in fact, a bigger number than 46.4. And that will make those of us who really understand how parliamentary democracies work--or for that matter, how numbers work--point at you and laugh.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Anti-academic plot

Okay, is it me, or do the most interesting events in Canadian politics always seem to happen riiiiight at the beginning or the end of the Canadian university semester?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Political culture and the post-2008 NDP

There are some terrific conversations going on out there right now about what's next for the NDP after the 2008 election. First, we have the NDP Strategic Review series over in Accidental Deliberations (parts one, two, and three), we have the Globe and Mail discussion between Brian Topp and Les Campbell, we have NDP Outsider's thoughts on the election and analysis of the Topp-Campbell discussion, and last but definitely not least, the thoughtful post over at EnMasse.

I have to admit, though, every time I've tried to participate in one of those discussions, I've found myself feeling a fundamental disconnect with the assumptions behind the points being made. It's not that I disagree with the NDP's policies, because I'm still just fine with most of them. It's not even that I think there's anything wrong with the leader of the NDP running to be prime minister. It's that as long as the NDP was just trying to do the best job it could in opposition, I could pretend that I don't have issues with the core assumptions of Canadian political culture. I do, though. And given the NDP's new strategies, it's getting harder and harder to talk with my fellow partisans about the future of our party without running up against that wall.

I alluded to this issue once before in my discussion about the NDP policy convention in 2006:

The most interesting thing about Sunday, though, was watching the talk of the prospect of an NDP-led government--which for the rest of the weekend had been bubbling under the surface--come out full force. One delegate, in debating one of the "building the party" resolutions, even slammed Jack for his "lend us your votes" rhetoric from the last election, saying that the NDP should instead start talking seriously about leading. I have to admit that I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, if the NDP wants to be taken seriously as a major force in Canadian politics, they have to instill confidence that they're ready to lead. To do this they need not just the right rhetoric, but also a serious effort to truly build the policies that would enable them to take the reins. I support this part of it wholeheartedly.

But at the same time, the NDP is supposed to be the only major party that completely supports an electoral reform in the direction of proportional representation. I know how PR elections are fought from my time living in Germany, and the people who fight them don't make statements like: "we want to form a government [implied: on our own]." They certainly don't say things like: "If we're ever going to form a government, it's going to be because we can beat the Liberals and the Tories at their own game." The fact is that PR makes single-party majority (or even minority) governments vanishingly rare, and majority coalitions--a form of government that's commonplace in most of the world but not currently a part of Canadian political culture--utterly normal. I brought that fact up with another delegate at the convention, and his argument was that the NDP needs to get elected before they can make the shift to PR, after which the necessary changes to the political culture can happen. I think this is the wrong tack to take, for two reasons. First, I agree as strongly as humanly possible with Wilf Day's statement that the voting system belongs not to the politicians, but to the voters, and that electoral reform needs to come from the people and not from their government. But much more disturbingly, it suggests to me that the NDP may not have thought about what PR would really look like once implemented. It suggests to me that the NDP may not want PR because it's the best thing for Canada, but because it's the best thing for the NDP right now, and they might well change their tune if the voters were to grant them their coveted chance to lead.
As I've mentioned before, I came of age politically not in Canada, and not in the U.S., but in Germany. It's difficult to underestimate the extent to which German political culture has been influenced by its voting system (which is based on proportional representation), because not only are coalition governments the norm, but political strategies are also correspondingly different. In that kind of culture, parties grow in influence not by changing their fundamental ideologies in order to expand their appeal to ever-expanding groups of citizens, but by coming up with good ideas within the boundaries of their fundamental political identity, and doing a good job of selling those ideas first to voters in an election, and then later to coalition partners in government. So Canadian talk among both professional and armchair party strategists about winning ever-increasing pieces of the pie by developing policies that appeal to a bigger and bigger tent of voters (and let's face it, that's exactly what the NDP is trying to do right now) has always collided with my basic ideas about how to do politics right.

So what am I suggesting, then--a coalition government with the Liberals to Stop Harper, like what Murray Dobbin is advocating? Not exactly. First of all, there's no sense in forming a coalition government unless that government can be a majority one, and second of all, it's difficult to imagine joining forces with a Liberal Party whose main raison d'être isn't the execution of a particular kind of policy, but getting back into power at all costs. But when I think about what Canada would look like with the kind of political culture that most shaped me, it seems obvious that parties and their strategies would be very different. And a coalition between a left-wing party (whether it's called the NDP or something else) and a centrist party (whether it's called the Liberals or something else) is a completely reasonable outcome in a scenario where the only real reason to vote for or join a party is because you like their policies. But until we reform our electoral system and the assumptions behind our political culture change, these kinds of discussions about party strategy beyond the constituency level aren't anything I'm going to be particularly interested in participating in.

I have to admit, I feel ambivalent about making this post in the first place, out of fear that it will be misread. I certainly don't mind criticizing the NDP when they deserve it, but this post isn't so much a criticism of the NDP as it is a criticism of what our voting system has done to our political culture and the results of that for the NDP. I absolutely understand why the leader of the NDP doesn't run for leader of a coalition government--within the constraints of our political culture, any acknowledgement that they can't form a majority on their own would be read as a glaring weakness. Voters would be at best puzzled and at worst scared off. I know all that.

But I don't like it. And more importantly, I don't accept it. Running to form government on their own may be the best the NDP can do within the current political culture, but Dymaxion World's axiom applies here as well as it ever has: Basic politics in a democracy: If you want to change the behaviour, don't change the actors, change the rules. Until we have proportional representation and the political culture that would result from it, partisan politics in Canada is always going to be more about how to get a bigger and bigger piece of the pie than it is about promoting good people and good ideas. And that's always going to limit the level at which I'm willing to get involved with my party of choice, no matter how good their candidates and their ideas are.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Do the Liberals have a voter database?

During the last election, my partner got a call from the Liberals. The caller gave the traditional spiel about how great the Liberals were and how great a change of government would be, and then asked her whether he could expect her support for Edmonton-Centre Liberal candidate Jim Wachowich on October 14th.

All of which would be par for the course if it weren't for the fact that my partner actually lives in the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona. So she proceeded to tell the caller that her Liberal candidate was Claudette Roy, not Jim Wachowich, and they had a bit of back and forth about that before the bewildered Liberal said he had to check something and hung up.

That story ran through my mind back when I read Calgary Grit's Building the Big Red Machine post, and this part of it has been nagging at me ever since then:

Which brings me to my next point – get an f’ing database. The Tories have pages upon pages (bytes upon bytes?) of information on donors, supporters, and voters – the Liberals have trouble sending out automatic renewals for party memberships. The Dave Taylor renewal document I linked to earlier this week made sense – every time a member signs up for the party you should find out what issues they care about and any other information about them you can. The more you know about voters, the easier it is to tailor your message to them. In the same vein, the more you know about your members, the easier it is to target fundraising messages to them.
I am misreading this, right? CG must be saying that the Liberals need to get the kind of database that the Tories have, which includes issues and demographics. Not that the Liberals need to get a general database--the kind with a record of who's voted for them over the years and where they live and whether they're members. They do have that, right?

Because if the Liberals have actually been running elections with no central database at all, then I'm astonished that they've won anything, ever. And yet I don't understand how the call to my partner about a candidate in a completely different riding could have happened if they do have one.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Congratulations, Americans!

I'm pretty sure that everyone who reads this blog knows that:
a) I'm a Canadian first and an American only by past association, and
b) I can't bring myself to get excited about the politics of any Democrat, and
c) change I can believe in is more along the lines of what happened on October 14th in Edmonton-Strathcona than what happened on November 4th in the United States.

But here's the thing: as of seven years ago, I still had warm feelings for the country I had left behind. And when it became something I no longer recognized at all, that made me terribly, horribly sad.

Nobody's going to turn the U.S. into a country I want to live in--it was never going to be that. But that guy the Americans elected last night? He might just turn the U.S. back into a country it would be nice to live next to.