Referenda

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The recent British election highlights the core problems with referenda. Some voters who voted to leave Europe either resented their choices or did not see Brexit as a ‘conservative’ issue. Instead of supporting Theresa May and the Tories, they chose someone else. Referenda are never more that simplistic snapshots of how someone mostly feels on a particular day.

Mostly is the key factor here – and it is easy to see how even winning a referendum on a simple either/or question does not necessarily reflect the popular will. It has to do with how strongly you feel.

Some people of course are 100% for something or 100% against. These are the same people who constantly use ‘always’ and ‘never’ in arguments. “You always spend too much money or you never do the dishes” is usually a replacement for “You often spend too much money and you seldom do the dishes.” Indeed, even if the splits are more like 60/40, the words always and never get bandied about.

And that is how most people are about most things. They are mostly for them or mostly against and sometimes that mostly is just 51/49.

Take a person who voted to leave Europe – they might know that their kids are doing okay in the city and they might enjoy a bit of low cost French cheese or Spanish wine but hate the idea of large number of foreign workers or the tax cost of supporting Greece. They may feel 47% for Europe and 53% against it but by voting Leave, they become 100% for going. The same analysis works on the other side.

But now imagine that the 48% of Brits who voted to stay in Europe are actually more committed to the idea – say on average 60-40 – while the 52% who voted to go are more ambivalent – say 45-55 – and, if you do the math, the popular sentiment (adding up all those splits) would be to stay in Europe.

Of course, there is no way to measure that with the simplistic way we currently run referendum – but why should we be stuck with something designed 100 years ago? This is 2017 and we do have the technology. Suppose you could register your ambivalence?

There might be a two part question. Are you for or against proposition Z? How much are you for or against it? A person might, if they are at all reflective and capable of seeing in colours other than black and white, decide that they are 51% in favour and 42% against and 7% undecided.

Then our clever machines could tally it all up and say that the average voter is 48% in favour, 45% against and 8% undecided. And we all get to embrace Proposition Z and most of us would be at least partly satisfied.

There are plenty of other things wrong with referenda (and difficulties with true democracy, despite its superiority to other forms of governance) but at least this version could provide you with some certainty about how the people feel – if not why they feel that way.

And that’s ten minutes.

A Conspiracy of Lizards

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A small percentage of Americans (totaling 12 million) apparently believe that a group of lizard people – cleverly disguised as human – are operating all the governments of the world. The exact intent of these lizards is unknown but it can’t be anything good. Usually when people use the word conspiracy, a switch goes off in my head and all I hear afterword is ‘Yadda, yadda, yadda.’ If you want to know why, read the book “Voodoo Histories.”

Of course, a real conspiracy is only effective if it can’t be detected and if it can’t be detected it could hardly work its way into the public consciousness. So any conspiracies that people talk about are actually fake news, covering for the real ones that we cannot fathom. Confused yet? Join the club – you know the one with Steve Bannon and his other paranoid ‘deep state’ fumblers.

Still, if there were a conspiracy of lizard people, what signs might we look for? I would think an accidental slip-up where they reveal a bit of scale or perhaps tweet something in their secret slithering tongue. Is that what covfefe really means? Perhaps. The White House press secretary seemed to imply it meant something – but only to the president and a few select others.

And of course, there you have it. In a world that increasingly hates facts and evidence, where everything can be explained as a plot or a plan by some secret cabal, anything is possible. Meanwhile, the rest of us hang on every word or tweet, like supplicants outside the Oracle at Delphi, struggling to interpret the secret meanings behind every mumbled exhortation.

The sad reality is that most of what President Trump and those in the White House say means very little – it certainly doesn’t mean what they or what any rational person might think it means – as, for example, when they say they are going to build a better America when they actually mean they intend to wreck everything good about America. That sort of thing.

But perhaps there is no real conspiracy at all. The simpler explanation is that POG (Poor Old Guy) got up in the night to pee (he is over 70, remember?) and was struck with a brainwave. He grabbed his phone and, voilà, covfefe. I sympathize. What writer has not woken from a deep sleep with a sudden flash of brilliance, reached for his notepad and pen and scribbled it down for posterity? The next morning he finds a meaningless scrawl or, worse yet, a series of unrelated words – goose climbs dark wonderment stardust – and wastes several days trying to recapture the moment.

In any case, it is a waste of time to spend too much effort trying to find deep meaning in most of Trump’s tweets or other utterances. There is nothing complex there – he is a grasping old man whose only meaningful statement in the last twenty years was: You’re fired. And while we are fluttering and fuming over the meaning of a Tweet (and isn’t Twitter the perfect name for the cacophony of the dawn chorus?), POG is pulling out of the climate accord and wrecking alliances that have served America well for decades. Covfefe, indeed.

And that’s ten minutes.

Liberal (Mis)fortunes

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Yesterday, voters in Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s smaller provinces, gave the governing Liberals a reduced majority, marking the first time since 1988 that a government has won back to back majorities. It was a close thing though, with the government losing 6 seats and two cabinet ministers. When the final tally was made, they held on to 27 seats compared to 24 for the two opposition parties. That is a workable majority – even after electing a Speaker (almost certainly a Liberal), they can afford to have one member down with the flu and still hold onto power.

Not so in British Columbia, where, a week after all the votes were counted and nearly a month after the actual election, uncertainty continues over the form of the next BC government. There, the Liberals were one seat shy of a bare majority, winning 43 of 87 seats. When they failed to find common ground with the 3-member Green party, the latter turned to the NDP (41 seats) to form a governing pact (though not a coalition) to run the province for the next 4 years.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that; the outgoing Premier is notorious for not giving up and has the track record to prove it, coming from behind twice to win the most seats when trailing at the start of the campaign. She hasn’t yet definitively said she will step aside and allow the NDP to form the government. She may insist on facing the House with a Throne Speech (or possibly ask the Lieutenant Governor to call a new election) and the newspapers have been rife with speculation that she would try to tempt one of the opposition members to cross the floor so she can hold onto power. This, however, seems unlikely. Both the NDP and Greens have been seeking power or influence in BC for 15 years and every one of them knows that the fate of floor-crossers is seldom rosy.

Besides, a bare majority for either side would be fraught. The Speaker – supposedly impartial – might be in the situation where he or she constantly has to vote for the government to keep things going. A single MLA becoming incapacitated before a crucial vote could bring down the government in a hurry.

Oddly enough, I’ve seen little speculation about a Liberal agreeing to either cross the floor or, more likely, run uncontested for the Speaker’s job. While their fate is not likely to be any different than that of another party, the Liberals have been in power for 15 years; there must be at least one backbencher who would be willing to end his career on a high note with all the pomp and perks that the Speakership holds. If they lose their seat in the next election – well, they will still have a pretty good pension. The NDP-Green government would then have a working two-seat majority to implement their shared agenda.

It should be an interesting few weeks on both coasts as the Liberals appoint their new Cabinet in Nova Scotia and as British Columbia finds out who exactly will get to do that job for them.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Real Deal

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As if further proof was needed that man is not a rational animal who learns from past mistakes and makes decisions based on evidence, we again struggled as we made our way from London to Deal. Despite frequently and fervently swearing to travel light, we lugged out 45 lb suitcases, plus loaded carry-ons and briefcases from our hotel in Soho, through the tube system (avoiding man-eating escalators) to the St. Pancras train station, though we initially went to adjacent King’s Cross and almost missed our train.

Arriving in Deal we discovered we were 2 hours early for check in and, having dragged our luggage across a bridge we popped into the nearest pub to have a beer and work out details of our arrival. I must say the locals were friendly if somewhat perplexed to see two heavily laden Canadians in their pub. Still, they were free with their advice as to where to get the best and most economical lunch platter and the cheapest beer. We eventually wound up in a taxi to drop off our luggage. “You went to The Eagle?” he queried. “Not first on my list of recommendations.” Apparently we managed to find the one notorious pub in the entire town of Deal. We may go back again this weekend to watch the fights.

Deal itself is charming, stretched out along the channel between Dover and Sandwich with a long pebble beach and large private and public gardens. It has a charming High Street with plenty of interesting shops – all closed because yesterday was a national bank holiday (the Canadian equivalent of Victoria Day apparently) – more good planning on our part. We met a lovely couple (John and Lynda) – amazingly fit and spry for being in their seventies – tending to a large garden on the edge of Deal on the location of a castle that fell into the sea. They were hoping to win the upcoming garden competition, having finished second last year, and were busily weeding and deadheading. They confessed to having been award winning dancers which perhaps accounted for their continued flexibility. I got sore just watching them work.

Our cottage is exactly as described and photographed – once you remember that in England, the first floor is actually the second floor – which makes for quite a climb up narrow stairs to bed every night. Still it is well equipped and has better Internet than what I have at home. It has a washer and a dryer though the dryer consists of a line in the backyard and a heated rack for drying towels in the upper bathroom. And, sadly for our guests, the second bathroom is downstairs from the second bedroom. But we’ll work something out.

Last night we feasted on some of the best Indian food I’ve had in years (though the service was marginal) and today we are off to the store for groceries. Tomorrow I’ll return with more of the usual political fare but for now that’s ten minutes.

The Things You See

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You go away for a few days and all hell breaks loose. Andrew Scheer (that is, Joe Who?) squeaks in as leader of the Canadian Conservative party, revealing nothing except the deep divisions within those who voted for him (and the almost equal numbers of those who didn’t). The divide is no longer between Reform and Red Tories – that ship sailed long ago with the progressives either hanging their heads glumly or long since departed for the Liberal and Green parties. The division now is between the libertarians and the social conservatives. The conservatives are talking a good fight but it is doubtful if Scheer will have a chance at the Prime Minister’s job before he turns 50 (like the knives won’t be out before then).

Meanwhile, Trump finished his first world tour to mostly negative reviews. A leading German newspaper called him a danger to the world. Meanwhile, eager to be in the camera’s eye he shoves a fellow NATO leader aside and pushes to the front, smirking madly. One day, he’ll push the wrong person and they will clean the poor old guy’s clock. I’m putting odds on Angela Merkel. It was funny though – I never realized how small Trump actually is, even Melania is taller than him.

I’m probably still suffering from the effects of my tumble down an escalator as I’m having trouble caring much about politics these days (or maybe it’s retirement). I have to say it was amazing how many people ran to our rescue after our fall (I took out Liz when I went past) – not only those whose job it was but many of our fellow passengers. But that’s not surprising. Whenever we were struggling up the stairs, we would suddenly find people grabbing our luggage and taking it up to the next landing for us. While in New York, you might worry they are trying to steal your clothes, in London, you know it is just people being helpful.

We’re staying in the middle of Soho which is full of life and people of every race, language and religion. It is like being at the crossroads of the world. It doesn’t take long to realize that most of the people you meet are not tourists like us but rather people who have come to live in one of the truly great cities of the world. I find myself more and more bewildered at the Brits who would want them to go. I’m sure my mother who hails from Basingstoke and helped found the first racially integrated cub pack in Canada would smile sadly and shake her head at her fellow citizens. Embrace the world, I say, you’ll be a better person because of it.

This weekend has been fabulous for the ambiance, the surprisingly good weather and the museums but especially for the chance to spend several days with Liz’s daughter Susan and her partner Kevin. Delightful, interesting people both. Now it’s time to go – not just because that’s ten minutes but because we are heading to their flat for a BBQ.

Wave the Flag

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This year is Canada’s 150th birthday and big celebrations are planned from coast to coast to coast. Nowhere will the party be bigger than in Ottawa on July 1st. As it happens I’m going to miss it. Was it intentional? Not consciously perhaps but, unconsciously, probably so. I’ve liked the annual foo-foo-rah less every year and, since the tightening of security over the last 10 years or so, it is a positively negative experience as far as I’m concerned. The crowds, the lines, the noise and, usually, the heat – it all seems like more trouble than it’s worth.

Then, there are the flag wavers. Canada doesn’t do patriotism/nationalism quite the way Americans do. When people wrap themselves in the flag (literally) it is often done with modified Canadian flags that express their identity – cultural, sexual or drug (replacing the maple leaf with a cannabis plant). They paint maple leaves on their faces and bellow incoherent versions of O Canada at passersby. And they get drunk and watch fireworks. Mostly good fun.

You seldom see demonstrations by white nationalists and when you do, other Canadians tend to stand around and stare disapprovingly. The sound of tut-tut-tut can sometimes be overwhelming.

Nonetheless, there is a streak of ugly exclusivity that still exists in certain parts of the country – not geographic parts so much (though that is a factor) but ideological parts. Take for example the current shenanigans around the changing of the words to our national anthem. The change is pretty minor: replacing the line ‘in all our sons command’ with ‘in all of us command.’ The arguments currently being voiced in the Senate border on the absurd. It’s traditional, they say. While I will acknowledge that Canada was traditionally a sexist patriarchy, it is now 2017 and we’ve had complete equality of the sexes in our constitution for 35 years. Besides, the anthem hardly dates back to the founding of the country (written in French in 1880 it was only adopted as the anthem in 1967) and has been changed numerous times over the years. My favorite argument, by one Senator, is that it is ungrammatical. Now there’s a cause most Canadians can rally around.

The reality is that few people sing the anthem anyway and when they do, they pretty much sing it the way they want. While one so-called patriot was up in arms because a choir in Toronto recorded the anthem using the as-yet unapproved words, few people are too concerned. They’ve been to hockey and baseball games and heard the mangling of the anthem too often to really care. At least they’ve stopped booing the French version when it’s sung.

Besides, there are bigger issues for some of us. One line extols God to keep our land glorious and free. One friend sings that line as ‘Dog keep our land’. I’m not sure if that is an expression of atheism, animal rights or simply a case of dyslexia. Other friends – avowed atheists – simply refuse to sing the anthem at all.

Flags and anthems are all well and good but too much adherence to any of them is not a mark of patriotism but a sign of impending fascism. The extreme right just love their little symbols; it would be cute if it wasn’t so ugly. One American friend of mine was shot at shorty after publishing a defence of flag-burning in a local paper. Coincidence? I think not. Still, it is worrisome that someone thinks shooting a person for expressing their opinion is a ‘defence of freedom.’

So I may watch the celebrations from England but I’m just as happy to miss all the patriotic noise and honour Canadian values of equality, multiculturalism and freedom in my own quiet way.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

Senate Sunrise

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Before coming to work at the Senate of Canada, I had never held the same job for more than 5 and a half years. While I never expected to stay so long, I’ve now spent more than 15 as the policy advisor to the Senator for the Northwest Territories.

I guess I wound up staying so long because the work was interesting, the conditions agreeable, the pay reasonable and maybe, most of all, I felt I was making a contribution.

Lots of friends have worked in the public service and one of their great frustrations was having everything they did edited, modified, limited, canceled, changed, misused by those higher up (and even lower down) the decision chain. When I wrote a letter, a speech or a report, only one person could ask for a change and as the years went by and I learned his voice better and better, the changes became fewer and fewer.

Over the years, I’ve written letters that went to 4 Prime Ministers, dozens of Ministers, Premiers, MPs, MLAs, corporate officials, heads of non-profits and ordinary citizens. Some of those letters actually changed public policy. I wrote ( and even gave) speeches, authored or oversaw reports, participated in meetings at every level and, most days, learned something new and interesting.

It was fun.

Obviously, I can’t list everything I did but there were a few highlights. In 2007, our office used caucus research funds to hire Jamie Bastedo to write a report on climate change in the arctic. Called “On the Frontlines of Climate Change”, it was one of the first popular reports about the impacts of global warming on northern communities and people. It was widely distributed across the NWT and across Canada and was even used as a teaching tool in a number of high schools and universities. This was the first of several papers that Jaime and I worked on – including one on alternative land using planning methods and another – which we co-wrote – on small-scale science and technology as an economic driver in the North.

I also worked on a lot of committee reports. A few stand out. For ”Sharing Canada’s Prosperity: A Hand Up Not a Handout”, on aboriginal economic development, I organized a policy team that included myself, Senator St. Germain’s policy advisor, Stephen Stewart and staff from the Library of Parliament to provide support to the Aboriginal Peoples committee. Though it is uncredited, I wrote the introduction to Negotiation or Confrontation, the report on the Specific claims process. Another report, done for the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources committee was “With Respect Canada’s North”. I assisted with organizing committee travel, provided policy advice and even traveled with Senators on a fact-finding trip across the NWT. I played a role – sometimes small and sometimes large – in another half dozen reports.

And , of course, there was the work on legislation. Everyone is making a big fuss these days because the Senate is amending government Bills but until 2008, the Senate routinely made amendments to about 25% of the bills that came before it. None of the governments of the day liked it but it was only during the Dark Years (2008-2015) that they used their majority in the Senate to thwart most changes. But in the early days, I helped draft a number of amendments, some of which made it into the law.

Travel in the north and to First Nations communities across Canada was a fascinating and rewarding opportunity and solidified my knowledge of northern and indigenous issues. I met literally thousands of people and learned from every one of them. And I like to think I helped my share, too, whether with tax problems, immigration issues or, most importantly, with dealing with residential schools.

It was a fascinating 15 years or work and continuous learning – imagine a job where they essentially pay you to think and read and study and then, report on what you found out. Not perfect everyday but a lot better than most jobs.

Of course there were dark times – the attack on Parliament Hill and the various Senate scandals, the Auditor general, the Harper majority – but the good outweighed the bad.

Pretty hard to sum up 15 years in 700 hundred words but that’s clearly somewhat more than ten minutes.

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