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.

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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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Senate Sunset

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In a few days I’ll be retiring from my job at the Senate of Canada. When I came to work as Senator Nick Sibbeston’s policy advisor some 15 and a half years ago, I never thought I’d stay so long. I’d originally accepted the job right after 9/11 because I wanted to get back into government work after an 11 year absence. I thought I’d stay with him for a couple of years before moving on to the public service. I almost went a couple of times – I came very close to getting a job with the Canadian Space Agency in 2011 but it was not to be.

In the end I stayed as long as I did because the work was interesting and the working conditions amenable. The pay wasn’t as much as I might have gotten elsewhere but it was certainly a living wage.

Having been there so long, I can attest to some of the substantial changes that have occurred in this 150 year old institution this century. When I arrived, the security guards at the Senate were required to salute Senators when they entered the building. My own boss thought this was hilarious but you could see that some of his colleagues lapped it up. In those days, about the only real rules about expenditures was ‘don’t exceed your budget’ and ‘don’t get caught spending money on your private concerns’. Even then a few Senators got into trouble and one even went to jail. Senate administration generally would question Senators’ staff but never Senators themselves. Only the Internal Economy Committee – made up of other Senators – could do that.

In that atmosphere, is it any surprise that a few people might go astray? But in reality it was very few and, generally, it was among those Senators, appointed for highly partisan reasons, with already questionable moral compasses that proved the most troublesome.

Which is one of the reasons I’ve been supportive of the move to make the Senate much less partisan. There have been bumps along the road and there are still rocky times ahead I’m sure. But one by one the bad apples are being gotten rid of or at least polished up. The rules under which Senators and their staff operate have been tightened considerably – a process that had actually begun years before the Duffy suspension, trial and eventual acquittal on all charges.

There are new rules regarding harassment that will make sure that the behavior of people like former Senator Don Meredith is nipped in the bud, long before it gets to the point of sleeping with teenagers. One hopes.

And lessons were learned from the experience with the Auditor General, too, though not necessarily what you might think. Bureaucrats and especially auditors (accountants who failed the personality test) have very little understanding what the job of politicians actually is. The biggest shame I ever saw in the Senate was when Romeo Dallaire resigned because some piddly-assed number cruncher decided working to eliminate the use of child soldiers was not public business. And before you say, yeah but they found a million dollars in inappropriate expenditures, I’ll mention that they spent $24M to do it.

And tomorrow I’ll tell you about some of the great things I got to do working at the Senate because that is a bit more than 10 minutes.

Electoral Reform 2

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Everything seemed set for electoral reform in Canada. The Liberals had made a promise to put an end to the First Past the Post system – though they didn’t commit to proportional representation itself. The PM had expressed, in the past, a preference for ranked ballots, but promised to keep an open mind to see what the Parliamentary committee, after suitable public consultation, came up with. At least two opposition parties were strongly committed to the task while the others gave lukewarm support.

So what happened?

When Parliament resumed, the Throne Speech promised action on the file and a Minister was appointed with specific responsibilities for electoral reform and the matter was referred to a committee for study. Whether by intent or oversight, the government used the standard approach to appointing house committees, that is, appoint a majority of government members to the body with proportionate representation from the other ‘official’ parties – which didn’t include the Greens or Bloc, who didn’t have the 12 MPs to qualify. They were given observer status.

The outcry was immediate – with charges of fixing the system or at least not acting in the spirit of an all-party approach. The government conceded and created a special committee with all parties represented and, more importantly, with the opposition in the majority. This was when the first mention of a consensus for change was brought up by the Liberals.

If the Liberals were trying to game the system to favour the PM’s favorite approach, they weren’t the only ones playing games. The Conservatives – who opposed changing the system at all – insisted that any change be approved by referendum, while the NDP and Green Party plunked for a PR based outcome. The Bloc seemed indifferent. Hearings were held with, frankly, a diversity of opinions being expressed. Just as polls showed a divided electorate with respect to a new system, with a significant minority wanting no change at all, witnesses were divided on needed changes and on how to design a new voting method. The government made things worse by doing a somewhat goofy on-line survey which seemed more designed as a educational tool for the public than a decision making tool for government.

One of the key participants in the hearings was the Chief Electoral Officer who said that a referendum could be held in time to make changes to the electoral system provided a clear set of options could be presented this year.

And that’s when it got strange.

The committee dithered but eventually a consensus was reached – or at least a majority opinion. Among a number of other recommendations (which you can read for yourself), the Conservatives, NDP, Bloc, and Green members agreed that a referendum should be put to the people – offering a choice between the status quo and some form of PR.

But what form? The committee didn’t say but suggested the government look at several options and measure them against a fairly complex formula and pick one that scored above a certain mark which would indicate it met certain criteria of fairness… etc. etc

In other words, the committee couldn’t come to an agreement and wanted the government to undertake further analysis before coming up with a referendum question. And would the committee members have been happy with the resulting question? We’ll never know, of course, but I’ll give you three guesses, as the saying goes.  It did seem to me like a deal made by the devil – satisfying the Conservatives desire for a referendum they could campaign against and the NDP/Green desire for proportional representation or nothing at all. They all patted each other on the back, saying how collegial they were, while the Liberals sat, fuming, in the corner.

Soon the Minister was ridiculing the ‘arcane algorithm’ in the House and not long after the Prime Minister appointed a new Minister and backed away from electoral reform all together. He suggested he didn’t want to open the door to fringe parties on the far right or left – and managed to insult Kelly Leitch in the process.

But I suspect the real reason was the poison pill of the referendum. Those things have never been anything but trouble in Canada – whether you are talking about ones regarding Quebec independence or trying to change the constitution. The question the government asked is what constitutes a win?

Experience has shown that setting the bar high – say 60% – is sure defeat for reform (given that the status quo always starts with 30%), while setting it lower, say 50% +1, would give comfort to future separatists who would use the precedent to their own advantage.

The Conservatives like populist measures like referenda, while the NDP have already said a single voter could decide sovereignty (assuming all other voters were evenly split) – and they, too, have populist roots.

The Liberals are a lot of things – but populist is not one of them. The majority of the party didn’t want PR in any case and they certainly didn’t want a referendum – not since the near-death experience of 1995. The PM probably did want reform but not any kind and not at any cost. So he decided it was worth paying the price of breaking a big promise.

As for me, I’ve generally been a supporter of PR all my life, but I do recognize the complexity of designing one that would actually work in Canada. It could be done but get it wrong and our Parliament could start to look like the Netherlands with more than a dozen parties – including one whose sole platform plank is to represent the interests of animals.

Maybe we’ll just have to muddle through with what we have, tinkering at the edges to improve participation and ease of voting. Someday we might get another chance, though I suspect not if we leave it to MPs and political parties to decide. In the meantime, there is PEI, which may be the way forward for PR: one province at a time.

And that is way, way more than 10 minutes.

Electoral Reform 1

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It’s now clear that electoral reform is not coming to Canada anytime soon. The Prime Minister declared the issue dead when he saw the report of the multi-party committee and its recommendations. The acrimony has been bitter with those supporting proportional representation claiming the PM has reneged on a major election promise.

Well, that’s sort of true. Trudeau did promise that the 2015 election would be the last using the first past the post (FPTP) system but he never once explicitly promised to bring in PR. At most he suggested he was ‘open’ to it. It’s long been known that the Trudeau preferred preferential or ranked ballots – as this was most likely, he thought, to encourage more electoral decorum and centrist parties. Perhaps he should take a look at Australia which uses the system for their lower house – hardly a model of decorum.

All that aside, who did support PR? The Green party obviously – it is probably their only chance to rise above the one seat limit they’ve been stuck at since, well, forever. The NDP has PR as official party policy (but provincial experience has shown that policy books don’t always translate into public policy) but I’ve heard a few in the party privately wonder about that since the 2011 election came within a couple of percentage points of giving them a national government using the FPTP system.

The Bloc Quebecois? Well, actually, the Bloc would do no better than it does now with either PR or ranked ballots as it has consistently won more seats than its percentage of the vote in Quebec. But PR would mean they would likely never disappear entirely so put them down as lukewarm.

As for the Conservatives, they had no love for any change that would diminish the chances of forming government, which PR definitely would. While they occasionally have had surges of support, the Conservatives have almost always been the second choice party with no clear allies in Parliament. Being ensconced as the permanent loyal opposition is hardly the prize they crave. That was one of the reasons they wanted to destroy the Liberal brand – they knew that in a competition with a more left wing party (i.e. the NDP) they would win more governments. That’s been the case in Europe and it would likely be the case here.

As for the Liberals they were okay whatever way the decision went. FPT had delivered them 14 of the 23 election victories since 1945 and either of the alternative systems would have done as well or better – though they would have only been the largest party with few majorities. Still, there was some reluctance – as there always is in centrist parties – to make too radical a change to something that was, from their perspective, not entirely broken.

Still, the momentum for change was there especially after the committee came forward with a somewhat clear set of recommendations. But the devil is in the details and I, for one, knew there would be no change the minute an all-party committee with an opposition majority was struck. And tomorrow I’ll tell you why – because that’s ten minutes.