Party Time!

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Most countries that claim to be democracies do not do so because they allow people to vote. In most countries and smaller jurisdictions, it means you have a real a choice between representatives of different parties with different philosophies or policy platforms. The multi-party democracy was, at one time, the gold standard of political freedom. In almost all cases, that meant a voting system that actually reflected the choices that voters made, in other words, proportional representation.

There are exceptions. The UK, the United States and Canada still cling to a system called first-past-the-post (FPTP) where the candidate who gets the most votes wins the district, A product of historical chance rather than design. America twists that slightly by placing the electoral college between the voters and the president so that a candidate can become president while finishing second in popular vote.

The distinguishing feature FPTP is the two-party system. Hence for the last 100 years or so, all three of the countries mentioned above have alternated governments between just two parties—one slightly to the right of centre and one slightly to the left. While third parties have occasionally won seats and even held the balance in power in minority governments, they rarely achieve much prominence unless they succeed in replacing one of the other parties.

PR systems have much more fluidity in governments. While some parties have more support than others, a single party or two seldom dominates for long and parties, once they establish a solid, if small, caucus in parliament, seldom disappear. This is troubling in some European countries where far-right and far-left parties, or those established by clowns, now have a permanent legitimized place in the national dialogue (though the recent election in Spain holds out some hope for the future)..

Still, that may be preferable to what is currently happening in the United Kingdom and Canada. The proliferation of small parties has gradually led to parties able to form majority governments without the support of significant sections of the public. Since 1997 only once has the winning party had more than 40% of the vote, yet we have had 4 majority governments and three minorities where the leading party was grossly over represented in seat count. It is quite likely that the result of the next election will return a majority with less than 36% of the vote.

Meanwhile in the UK, the latest polls give the two largest parties considerably less than 70% of voter support—the lowest levels in more than 80 years. Because most of the smaller parties have strong regional support, the chances of the UK having a majority government in the near future seem dim. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing given the current leadership, the FPTP system will grant fringe or even fanatic parties disproportionate power while still shutting out much larger national parties like the Liberal-Democrats. Britain faces the prospect of become the new Italy.

In the USA, the two party system still seems alive and well but close examination shows how divided each of the two parties are with more than a dozen factions represented in the House of representatives.

Meanwhile in Canada, it is likely that we will see seats split between five or even six parties but with all or most of the power going to one. Hardly a formula for national unity or even, as Justin Trudeau argued in reneging on electoral reform, a more civil discourse in politics. That particular decision may be one we all live to regret.

And that’s 10 minutes from Hayden Trenholm

The Alberta Solution

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In the months leading up to the recent Alberta election, there were renewed calls from the fringes for Alberta to separate. Now Premier Jason Kennedy acknowledged they were extreme views but said (nudge, nudge) they reflected the real anger and alienation of Albertans and shouldn’t be disregarded out of hand (wink, wink). I’m sure now that their favorite Harperite is ensconced in the legislature ready at willing to tilt at windmills (I mean, literally given his wishy-washy position on climate change) and take on Ottawa – the fall-back approach for provincial leaders wanting power at any cost.

But I have to say, I was intrigued. To be frank, I thought of offering to help them pack.

Don’t get me wrong, I lived there for 11 years and have lots of friends and even family in Alberta. I encourage them to move to more civilized parts of the country. If they can find one after the results of recent elections.

Still, the logistics of it all are fascinating. If Alberta separated, where would they go? The USA wouldn’t take them – they already have Montana, Utah and the Dakotas, plus plenty of fracked oil and gas. What’s the added benefit of taking on a bunch of Yahoos from Canada?

And going it on their own where they are is hardly a solution. They would still have to try to ship their oil through BC and put up with folks from Saskatchewan dropping across the border to avoid the sales tax. And, as a separate country, they would get even less attention to their whining from central Canada (though it’s hard to imagine how Torontonians could care less about Alberta than they already do). Of course, the NWT would be happy—all that construction money to build a highway north of 60 to connect to BC would certainly make life easier, though winter driving might be unpleasant.

But we have the technology!

If we used all that heavy equipment sitting idle up in the tar sands (sorry, if I’m going to be brutal, I may as well call them what they are), we could dig down a mile or so and just airlift the whole province right out of there. Maybe Putin would loan us some of those heavy lift helicopters they’ve been developing. Finding a place to drop it off might be tricky—I mean we couldn’t just drop it in the ocean. Think of the mess.

But maybe we could balance it on a few of those empty islands way south in the Pacific. The climate there is lousy but Albertans are used to that and, besides, once they were free to unleash that bitumen on the world, it might heat up nicely.

As for the rest of Canada, we could get our inland sea back—even though the dinosaurs would now be living in the south Pacific. BC could expand their ferry service and Saskatchewan would get all that seafront property. It would almost be worth making a trip there.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a project manager, I’m easy enough to find.

And that’s 10 minutes in a light-hearted sort of way.

 

 

Leadership

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Everybody says they want strong leadership from our prime ministers and presidents. But what do they mean by that? Some want a command and control approach while others see that as authoritarian and dangerous (can you say fascist?). They prefer team leaders, a first among equals who consults widely and only acts when a consensus emerges. They are dismissed as dithering snowflakes. And the division is largely on generational lines.

This came crystal clear during a chat I had over lunch with old political friends. And when I say old, I mean I was the youngest person there. The topic of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott came up and we all agreed it had been a serious matter. Then one of the women asked: Why the hell didn’t Trudeau throw them out of caucus sooner? Why did he let them continue to say they had no confidence in him? It made him look weak.

It was in fact quite unprecedented. No Canadian Prime Minister I can think of would have tolerated what those two former Cabinet Ministers said and did. Harper, Chretien, even the great ditherer Martin would have dumped them from caucus forthwith. And it is not as if Trudeau has not been precipitous in dropping people from Cabinet and caucus—he did it to four men (2 were expelled and 2 left “voluntarily”) as soon as a whiff of sexual impropriety arose.

But this was different. Two high-profile women, potential future leaders, had, for whatever reasons (and I am not quite inclined to fully believe either side as to what those reasons were), turned on the government, in some cases testifying—but never quite delivering the killing blow but always promising more to come—and in others giving damaging interviews to major media outlets (though again filled more with innuendo than actual evidence). One refused to show up for votes in the house that could have brought the government down; the other secretly taped a senior public servant and then released the tape without consulting him. Still, the PM did not act, continued to say the caucus welcomed diverse views.

The turning point came when Philpott came to caucus to, according to some, say a mea culpa and try to walk back on her interview in MacLean’s. The caucus listened—though apparently not very politely—and she quickly made an exit. The Prime Minister—who swore when he assumed the leadership that there would be no repetition of the old Chretien/Martin internal party wars—had what he wanted. Where previously, a significant fraction of the caucus was prepared to continue to support the membership of the dissidents in their party, now, to a man and woman, they had had enough. No vote was held, because the Liberal caucus had never agreed on that procedure for dealing with caucus membership (and remember those who left unwillingly—no vote being held). And no one was willing to risk the recently achieved unity by demanding one.

The next day, the two MPs became independents. While one has talked about running for another party, the other has not indicated her intent. My prediction: after the October election, we will never see them on a national stage again. History, and the way the electorate actually decides who to vote for (hint: it is almost never due to the local candidate’s popularity), is certainly not on their side.

In the meantime, the unfortunate PM is dismissed as weak by one side and unfair by others, even though he acted in a manner quite consistent to the way he had promised to act, the way most of his generation want their leaders to act. Well, we all get to judge next October.

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.

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.