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.

Democracy in France

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Every one of my acquaintance (and yes, I’m ignoring you right over there) is pretty pleased with the results of the French presidential election yesterday. The victory of youthful, energetic and centrist Macron over the darling of the far-right, Le Pen, has made us all sigh with relief. But, maybe we shouldn’t sigh too soon.

Quite apart from the fact that 11 million French voters – some perhaps taken in by Le Pen’s questionable pretence at temperance – wound up supporting the former and soon-to-be-again leader of the National Front is hardly cause for celebration. Macron still has a tough road ahead to try to forge some sort of government out of the congress that will be elected in a month’s time. His own fledgling En Marché party is unlikely to win a majority and, while the National Front is unlikely to turn its moderate (funny word that) success yesterday into a substantial block of seats, it will be tough to bring together deputies and senators of both the left and right into a cohesive government. And if Macron fails, Le Pen will be back again in 5 years and she just might win.

But what may be more troubling about the election is the underlying fault in western democracy that seems to grow more serious with each passing year. Large numbers of French voters simply stayed home, unwilling to vote for anyone who wasn’t their first choice. Some conservatives but many more on the left were clearly prepared for a Le Pen victory if they couldn’t have the candidate of their choice.

This was the exact same phenomenon that occurred in the last American election – which saw some Saunders supporters stay home (though in the end not that many) and some apparently vote for Trump.  While everyone has the right to vote or not vote as they see fit, it is an odd thing for people to vote for someone the polar opposite of who they originally supported as seems to be the case where some far left voters in France swung over to the far right.

This is a bit like people who say they like ice cream but only if it is butterscotch. No other ice cream will do. People! That is crazy. Even vanilla ice cream is better than on ice cream. I mean, ICE CREAM!

And democracy is a lot like that row of ice cream (and, heaven forbid, sherbet) containers. We all have our favorites – and some of us of course are lactose intolerant and hate ice cream – but we are usually willing to settle for our second or third choices. And democracy is much the same. If you only have two choices – surely there is one that is better than the other.

Of course, this is a bit facetious. Democracy doesn’t taste nearly as good as ice cream. After voting, I’ve often had a bitter taste in my mouth. And sometimes when I watch the necessary compromises that politicians have to make in a world where we all have different interests but we still have to get things done, I get an ice cream headache.

But a world without ice cream or democracy? Now that I wouldn’t want to imagine at all.

And that’s ten 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.

Memes

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Yesterday I saw a meme on Facebook which consisted of an unflattering picture of an angry looking Hilary Clinton and a caption “I’ll get you and your little bird, too,” a reference to the finch that landed on the podium during a Bernie Sanders speech. It was posted by a progressive woman (a Sanders supporter) with a note saying that it should be taken as humorous.

Let’s be clear: this was meant to remind you of the wicked witch from Wizard of Oz (who is eventually killed). The word ‘witch’ is often used as a euphemism for the word ‘bitch.’ What struck me about this is the number of times I’ve heard right wing white men make misogynistic and racist remarks and then excuse it with: It’s just a joke. Don’t you have a sense of humour?

I get it. We often make rude jokes among ourselves – denigrating people for aspects of their character or background because attacking their policies is just too time and energy consuming. My wife and I have often said that it’s a good thing our living room isn’t bugged, given some of the snarky remarks we’ve made about politicians and, even, about tragic public events. We say things to each other that we would never dream of saying in public. Or on Facebook.

What’s the harm, you might say? When politics is reduced to memes, discourse is reduced to angry shouts, democracy becomes demagoguery and racists and sexists are given a free hand. It is no more acceptable for those on the left to do it than those on the right.

But it is so damn easy, isn’t it? I’ve been guilty myself. I made a meme showing a smarmy looking Ted Cruz with the logo beneath his face saying “Five Affairs” as if he were bragging. Below that was Vezzini from the Princess Bride (Cruz is a big fan) saying “Inconceivable.” With two images and three words I both call attention to the rumours around Cruz and question his ‘manhood.’

Here’s an easy one for Clinton supporters to use. Find a picture of Sanders making a speech – hand raised, preferably in a fist. The caption? “Old Man Shouting at Clouds” Now we get to point out that Sanders is indeed the oldest candidate for President ever and suggest that his policies are not only fuelled by anger but also that they are unlikely to change anything.

Would that be fair? Not in the least. Would it be funny? To some people maybe; others would see it as ageist and simple-minded. That’s what memes do. Make light of everything and reduce it to the lowest common denominator – usually by playing on half-truths or outright lies. Lies seem to be the main currency of modern politics in America.

The solution to division in America is not more insults, lies, invective or bad and unpleasant jokes. The solution is honest discourse and spirited but reasoned debate. You actually see that, for the most part, between Sanders and Clinton. It even, from time to time, appeared in the Republican debates. Maybe, whoever becomes the candidate for their respective parties, we’ll see it in the presidential debates.

But in America in 2016, I suspect it will all be reduced to an insulting picture and a few simplistic insults. Funny? In a sick kind of way, I suppose. I’m sure anti-democratic thugs the world over are laughing their heads off.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Bull Moose

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The presidential election in the USA looks to be one of the most interesting since, oh, let’s say, 1912. During that campaign, there was a split in the Republican Party between the conservative wing and the progressive one, a stolid middle of the road Democrat and, yes, a viable Socialist candidate. It sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it?

The Republicans had always been a troubled and troublesome party. In those days, you must remember, the Republicans were the party of civil rights (Lincoln was a Republican) and had a strong environmentalist bent (Teddy Roosevelt, who had left office in 1908, established many of the federal reserves in the west). They even were – for the times – slightly pro-labour. The Democrats were the party of the south and were hardly the progressive group they are today. And it wasn’t illegal to be a socialist – which it sort of was after the Russian revolution of 1917.

After a fractious primary campaign (one of the first as at that time only 15 states held primaries) the Republican convention resulted in accusations of corruption and vote buying. Teddy Roosevelt, returning to the campaign trail after 4 years absence, had won most of the primaries but, at the convention, he found himself outmaneuvered by sitting President, William Taft, a conservative. He eventually withdrew and took his delegates and supporters with him to form the Progressive party.

Meanwhile Eugene Debs, running a grassroots campaign (he spent all of $66,000 on his campaign) was campaigning hard for the Socialists which had won a number of local and state elections in the previous decade. He had no real hope of winning and was mostly running to help build up the party – but he did make an impact, on the race, on the other parties and on the growing labour movement.

The Democrats had nominated the somewhat stolid Woodrow Wilson, a former college professor and administrator, who ran on a campaign to essentially “make America great” though he didn’t exactly use those words. American influence was growing in the world but Wilson believed that involvement abroad, especially in in Europe – where war was imminent – would risk American interests. The Republicans were much surer – they, and especially Roosevelt, had won the Spanish-American war and wanted to assert US dominance — as a Christian nation — on the world.

The campaign was vigorous with candidates trekking across the country by train. In the end Roosevelt’s personal popularity was not enough to break the habit of the two party system. He finished a distant second as the Progressive (aka the Bull Moose Party) candidate. The Republican, Taft, suffered the greatest defeat ever for a sitting President. Deb’s socialists finished a distant fourth with 6% of the vote – the most ever, before or since, for such a candidate.

Now we can flash forward to 2016. A conservative candidate wins the nomination of the Republicans but is challenged for the right of centre vote by a more moderate independent Republican. Meanwhile the Democrats nominate a fairly stolid centrist candidate. To keep things interesting and promote the revolution, a plucky socialist decides to run an underfunded campaign from the left. Trump, Bloomberg, Clinton, and Sanders.

It’s enough to make a political junky salivate.

And that’s ten minutes.

The O’Brien Factor

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Do business people make good political leaders? This question seems to be particularly relevant these days. Donald Trump wants to be President of the United States while as mentioned yesterday; Kevin O’Leary wants to be leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.

This is a difficult question to answer because the sample size is too small. In The USA, other than a couple of men who dabbled in small businesses (Harry Truman made and sold hats, for example), the only two business people to occupy the White House were the two Bushes. It was far more likely that you had your origins as a farmer than a store owner.

In Canada, our second PM was from the world of business and served a single term. After that it was more than a hundred years before Brian Mulroney – a corporate executive – moved into 24 Sussex Drive. Paul Martin was also from business. Both of these men had a long history of political involvement, however, Mulroney from university days. As for Martin, he was the son of a long serving Cabinet Minister and must have picked up a little knowledge of the political sphere from that.

You can make your own verdicts as to how good these men were in their role as government leader, but it is tough to make a judgement on such a small sample.

Even governors and provincial premiers are not a good measure; while the percentages of business people who reach those offices are a little higher, they are far outnumbered by lawyers or even teachers and their results are mixed. It is only when you get to the municipal level that you tend to see a higher percentage of business people take office.

I’ve hardly made a scientific study but it strikes me that it takes a certain kind of mind set to transition from success in business to effectiveness in government.

The case of Larry O’Brien – mayor of Ottawa for one term – might be an object lesson. O’Brien was a successful – if sometimes controversial – entrepreneur and businessman who decided that he knew how to make improvements in city government – though he’d never been elected to any office previously. He handily won the mayoralty in a three way race (with 47% of the vote) and immediately tried to implement his promise of 0% tax increases. It lasted a single year before he had to cave in to the growing demands of an expanding city and raise taxes by a significant amount.

Then there was his management style. This was a man used to getting his own way. The buck stopped with him and if he didn’t like how things were going, he could say: You’re fired! Trouble is you can’t fire the public and you can’t make community organizations do what you tell them. O’Brien soon discovered that managing a city – which was involved in dozens of different policy areas – was far more complicated than running a business that had at most two or three things to focus on.

Then there were the criminal charges. O’Brien had to step down for 2 months to face bribery charges related to the election (the charges were later dropped). When he had left office (defeated – with only 24% of the vote), he admitted that he had completely underestimated and misunderstood the difficulty of political leadership. It’s a lesson others might want to learn from.

And that’s ten minutes.