The (waning) power of incumbency

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The last twelve months have not been a good year politically for incumbents. In the USA, mid-term elections, when all the votes were counted, delivered a stinging rebuke to House Republicans and, indirectly to President Trump. At the state level, eight governorships changed hands. In Europe, Italy and Spain swept previous governments from power while in Sweden, the former ruling party now clings to power as a minority coalition which could topple on any given day. Even in Turkey, the President’s party lost its majority in Parliament. Considering that Edrogan had been seeking a super majority to change the constitution, this counts as a major setback. In Brazil, a fringe former army officer came out of nowhere to win the Presidency from the socialist front runner on a platform largely indistinguishable from fascism.

Meanwhile in Canada, five consecutive provincial elections have ousted the sitting government. A sixth might fall tomorrow and, federally, the Liberal government is trailing the main opposition party, either by a little or a lot depending on which polls you believe. While campaigns matter, it looks grim for one-term PM, Justin Trudeau.

This is clearly not a left-right thing. Where progressives were in power, conservatives and right populists won. Where conservatives ruled, they lost out to left-wing or left populist parties. Meanwhile in Ukraine, a TV comedian with no apparent policies at all defeated the sitting president.

So, what’s going on? I suspect there are many factors at play. Let’s for a moment, leave the ugly stuff aside (the sexist attacks on women politicians and the demonization of immigrants or, if you like, the rich) though they certainly played a factor in some of the races. But in the USA, women and minorities did very well in mid-term elections, and these tactics were failures in Spain and Turkey.

I suspect what is really going on is a deep disappointment and anger at whoever happens to be holding power. People in western democracies no longer feel that they are being served, that their interests are paramount, that they can trust their own governments to protect them. Those governments, they think, are not working for them – time to try something new, maybe even, radically new. Why not, some have said, elect people who have no history in government or politics. They couldn’t be worse, could they?

Well, let me put it this way—I wouldn’t let someone operate on me because they had played a doctor on TV.

Whereas the power of incumbency used to be golden, now it has turned to dross. Politicians have suddenly realized they can win by running against their own history. In Newfoundland, the Conservative leader is running on a campaign that essentially says, I’m not like the conservatives you threw out 4 years ago—even though he comes from the most powerful conservative family in the province. If this kind of thing catches on, maybe we’ll see Trump run for re-election as an independent democrat.

Of course, sitting governments may have to share in the blame for all this. Most governments get elected on the promise to do things differently and often on specific policy proposals they come to find distasteful (election reform, Mr. Trudeau?). Inevitably they disappoint those who had voted for them. Those who had fallen in love with them—well, there is nothing more bitter than a failed romantic relationship.

So, what do we do? Give up on democracy? I hope not. As Churchill put it democracy is a lousy system, until you compare it with all the rest. Besides, politics is not really the problem; economics is. But you’re going to have to wait for that because that’s ten minutes from Hayden Trenholm.

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 Great Divide

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Years ago, Hugh McClellan coined the phrase “The Two Solitudes” to describe the lack or perceived lack of communication between English and French Canada. A long history of separate political and social evolution made it seem to many that the divide might never be bridged. Times change and people and societies change with them and though independence was a real draw for many Quebecois, that tide has receded somewhat. Both Canada and Quebec are better places for the rich exchange of culture and of political ideas between the former separate camps. Tensions continue to exist – after all we spent twenty years building them to their peak in 1995—but still the idea of the two solitudes no longer has the same resonance that it once did.

Except new divisions have arisen in our country. “The Great Divide” is not, as the name suggests, a division that cleaves between east and west but rather a much different partition, that between urban and rural.

Little communication or understanding exists anymore between urbanites and their country cousins. Not only in Canada but throughout much of the world, the values, economies, cultures and politics of many countries have split along urban/rural lines.

Cities tend to embrace more progressive ideas (and parties) while rural areas fight to preserve traditional and conservative values. You can see this in places as diverse as PEI and Alberta. In the former, the Greens swept the urban centres while the Conservatives held sway in the more rural villages and counties. Even normally right-wing Calgary elected three NDP members in the face of the Conservative wave and they were close in several other ridings. UCP majorities were much thinner there, too, compared to the overwhelming support they gained in the countryside.

One can look south of the border where, even in dead red states, patches of blue blossom wherever population densities rise. In England it was the urban centres like London that voted to stay in Europe while rural regions largely voted to leave.

There are a lot of reasons why such hard divisions have arisen and seem to be solidifying. Urban areas are more diverse – people who don’t fit in their rural or small-town communities gravitate to the cities where they can find others who share their views and values or, at least, they can submerge into the greater anonymity that urban life provides. Cities tend to be net generators of economic activity and wealth and are better able to adapt as new industries rise and older ones fail—problems that one industry towns or single commodity rural areas have a harder time doing. Immigrants are naturally attracted to areas of greater economic opportunity and it often takes government subsidies and supports for them to consider more remote parts of any country. Cities also tend to host the major universities, museums and arts centres, as well as being the locus of government.

Yet, there are dire consequences for democracy if these divisions persist and expand, especially since most countries continue to grant rural areas more representation and therefore power (Nebraska, for example, has the same number of Senators as California and, in Canada, the courts have agreed that a 25% variation—more in sparsely populated districts—in seat size is reasonable, giving rural areas five seats when urban populations of the same size only get four). Yet the urban-rural conversation seems almost never to be pursued except by accident.

Maybe it’s time we found a way to change that.

And that’s ten minutes.

Burn, Baby, Burn

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Currently a war is being waged in Canada over something that should be a unifying proposal. The Canadian public, who overwhelmingly believe that climate change is one of the major issues facing the country, must be confused. Almost everyone agrees it is happening and most of those also accept that human activity is a major factor in causing it. Scientific studies show that is so and, moreover, that there are specific things we can and must do about it.

Now before you link me to the phony web-sites denying all this or trot out your long-debunked theories about WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON, let me tell you I’m not interested – that ship is sailed. You have been relegated to the trash heaps of voodoo history, along with anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers. I can’t waste my precious time debunking that which, on the face of it, has no merit.

Besides, I want to get back to that which should unite us. The Carbon Tax, hereafter referred to as TCT.

Oh, I can already hear the gnashing of teeth—on both the left and the right. What’s that you say? You thought TCT was nothing but a leftist plot to destroy business and fund their crazy progressive programs. Well, not quite. A fair number on the left prefer a cap and trade system or a regulatory regime that gets at the real culprits of climate change, that is, large corporations, while protecting the innocent victim, ordinary folks like you and me. TCT is not sufficiently punitive to industry and governments, especially non-left ones, can’t be trusted not to keep the cash rather than use it to help taxpayers (which oddly is what those on the right say, too). What’s more, industry will simply pass the tax on to consumers. Bad all around.

Certainly, cap and trade worked pretty well for getting rid of sulfur (and hence acid rain) and regulation took care (mostly) of ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons, which is why I, too, used to think they were the way to go for carbon emissions. Then I realized that not only was the chemistry different, the distribution of emitters was different, too. Everybody produces carbon emissions and, when the law of large numbers kicks in. individual emitters are collectively very significant; everyone must be engaged in reducing carbon. And the simplest way to do that is to put a tax on carbon. Of course, that reeks of market economics, also anathema to those on the left. Phooey, I say; I’m proud to use the tools of the enemy to advance good causes. Policy shouldn’t be designed to punish bad behavior but to change it. And people respond to price.

Which is why many real conservatives (and most of industry, including the oil industry) support a carbon tax. It is simple, requires little government intervention or bureaucracy, can be designed to be more-or less revenue neutral (put simply the government gives back in tax credits or rebates, all –or in my preferred scenario, most—of the revenue it collects) and creates a level playing field where individual choice moves the market from carbon-heavy to carbon-light alternatives.

Then why do so many so-called conservatives (Scheer, Kenny, Ford and the other camp followers) oppose it? The simple answer is that Trudeau and the Liberals support it. That pretty much sums it up. It is not principle or fighting for the little guy or, even, ideology that motivates these guys – it is pure partisan politics.

And when the quest for power (which they want so they can cut taxes for the rich and tell the rest of us what we can or cannot do with our hearts, souls and, mostly, our bodies) is the only motive, facts and rational arguments cease to mean a damn thing. Appealing to our most venal instincts (Damn taxes! I like shiny trucks! I don’t want to change! It’s someone else’s fault!), they will say and do anything to gain it.

And when the world burns to the ground, they can always say: I never knew!!! But, of course, they do.

And that’s 10 minutes (or somewhat more – I’m a bit rusty, but I’ll improve)

Rock Stars

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A recent article called into question the “progressive” agenda of the new leader of Ireland. Young, good-looking, openly gay and of mixed race, his election as Taoiseach (leader) was hailed as step into modernity for the people of Ireland. Certainly, Ireland seems ready for such a move, having recently approved gay marriage despite the opposition of the Church and many conservative politicians.

Yet, the policies of Leo Varadkar remain decidedly neoliberal in most areas and his support for women in a decidedly patriarchal and Catholic state has been called into question. How could this have possibly happened?

Well, give your head a shake. Varadkar was elected head of a centre-right political party, having been a long time member and MP. This didn’t happen by accident. He was elected leader not because he was gay and mixed-race but despite of it. Party members selected him (he has yet to face the people in an election) because he shared their values: more progressive on a few things but generally a conservative at heart.

Why do progressives fool themselves into thinking that politicians are equally progressive when it is clear that they are not? Certainly the fact they are better than the alternatives is a factor but I also put it down to the “rock star” factor.

We have a tendency to see certain kind of people – young (but not too young), good looking, energetic and athletic, well-spoken but not snooty—as somehow imbued with the royal jelly. They have a quality—often undefinable—that makes us see them as more than they are. While anyone who gets to be leader of a country or even a political party is a cut above average, they are still human, with human limitations. Not only that, they are also exactly who they appear to be; exactly who they’ve always been—no matter what shine they try to put on it.

The same can be said of France’s new president—elected as much to keep the ultra-right Le Pen out of office as for any other reason. Macron was viewed as a fresh face and a new approach and, even, by some, though certainly not by all, on the French left as progressive and forward-thinking. That was before he announced that he wanted to govern France like the god Jupiter. Yet, the president is exactly what he has always been, what he showed himself to be as a Minister (who quit in a huff) in the previous socialist government: a market-oriented liberal with some progressive views and a decidedly neo-liberal bent.

The same might be said of Canada’s own Justin Trudeau. I voted for him and generally like him but my vote was based on “he was better than the alternative” –including the party of the left at that time. While by nature and inclination a democratic socialist, I wanted Harper out and Trudeau was the best bet to do it when Election Day came.

But I was never under the illusion that he was left-wing or even slightly more than left of centre. He is a liberal with progressive views on some issues (women, indigenous people and the role of science) and very pro-market liberal views on taxation and, I suspect, the environment. But he looks like a rock star and still seems better than the alternatives. Though that may change if we actually get a leader who was a rock star.

Of course, the United States doesn’t suffer from this problem. Few of their current leaders or potential leaders have rock star qualities. They best they have to offer the public is reality-show bozos and aging hippies. But don’t worry – I’m sure Americans will find their own shining political star to lead them on and let them down.

And that’s ten minutes.

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.

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.