Independent Senators

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I was going to take a short break form the blog today but Senator John Wallace changed my mind. He decided yesterday to leave the Conservative caucus and sit as an independent. Doing so, he endorsed the idea of a non-partisan Senate where, as the Supreme Court wrote, Senators could dispassionately examine legislation and provide ‘sober second thought.’

In itself, the defection of one Senator does not a revolution make but it does indicate the real frustration that some Senators were feeling with the strict control placed over them by the former PM. I’ve watched a number of them and while Senator Wallace always came across as a man with a gentle nature and a sense of humour, he wouldn’t have been my first pick as someone who would assert his independence. I’m a little surprised but not terribly shocked that he is.

But what it really tells me is that the disaffection with the partisan nature of the Senate runs deeper than even I thought. There must be a number of other Senators considering their options this morning and I would be both shocked and surprised if Senator Wallace isn’t joined by a few more of his colleagues as independents in the next week or two.

If he is the first of several or perhaps many, this could go a long way to solving the problem of the Senate in the short term while paving the way for a longer term solution that will see a Senate primarily composed of independents. Some of these may organize themselves in loose caucuses in order to maximize the effectiveness of their resources but, if they operate like the current Senate Liberals, there will be no connection to parties in the House and there will be no whipped votes or penalties for sometimes going their own way.

Right now, there is a certain amount of pressure on the new PM to waver on his Senate promises. A united and aggressive Conservative opposition in the Senate (where they hold a clear majority) could force Mr. Trudeau to appoint pro-Liberal Senators in order to get his legislation passed until such time as his new appointments process is asset up and running. He might get away with it if he appoints a number Senators who are 73 or 74 already. They would face mandatory retirement at 75 at which time they could be replaced using the new process.

But I don’t think Trudeau will do that except in extremis. He seems determined to keep his campaign promises even in the face of strong opposition. If he’ll do that with respect to the bombing mission in Syria, I doubt if the Senate will budge him. Rather, I suspect that Dominic LeBlanc and current Senators are working hard to make sure that John Wallace is only the first of the new independent Conservatives and not the last.

And that’s ten minutes.

Open By Default

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Open By default. With those three words, the new Prime Minister changed the culture of Ottawa, perhaps more than it has been changed in a generation.

Everyone knows – or should know – the secrecy that has cloaked the operations of the federal government during the last decade. Scientists were prohibited from talking about their work – at least without Ministerial approval. Freedom to information rules were tightened and made inaccessible to ordinary citizens because of the high fees attached to them. The long-form census was scrapped to protect privacy while the government increased the power of the state to pry into our affairs. The media were controlled or when they wouldn’t be compliant, they were shut out. Conservative party officials explained it was because their in-house propaganda was truer than what you found in the press.

But what a lot of people may not know, or have forgotten, is the extent to which the Canadian government has always clung to secrecy and the control of information – information that was gathered and compiled and analyzed on our dime.

Even in the previous Liberal administration, the general rule was secret by default. Some things have to be secret or at least confidential – Cabinet debates for example, are kept private to ensure Ministers will speak their mind even when some of the things they have to say are politically unpalatable, but at one time there were serious efforts to keep Cabinet decisions from being widely disseminated. That, in a democracy, makes no sense. Personal and proprietary information should be protected, of course. But, even then, there are limits.

While the United States and England and most of Europe were embracing the idea of transparency and accountability and making use of new technologies to share information with their citizens, Canada continued to hide behind the need for confidentiality. Remember, Stephen Harper made accountability (and greater openness) one of his five priorities in his first election. If it hadn’t been a problem, he might not have done that.

Of course, he wasn’t serious. He didn’t want open government; he wanted a government better able to explain to the people why its decisions were necessary. But that’s another story.

The Harper desire for control played very nicely with the instincts of certain bureaucrats. They knew that knowledge was power and, indeed, many had built their careers on what they knew and others didn’t. All bureaucrats are, by nature, cautious (not necessarily a bad thing) but some took that caution too far and became willing partners in the growing central control of information – until it got to the point that the bureaucracy was silenced, dis-empowered and kept from working. Then they began to complain. And when their complaints were ignored internally, they resorted to satirical songs and public protests.

The new government has made openness their hallmark. Publishing mandate letters – for the first time in Canadian history – may not resonate with many Canadians but– IT IS A VERY BIG THING. For the first time Canadians will know what Ministers are expected to do and will be able to judge them on whether they do it. Combined with an instruction to consult widely and to treat journalists with respect and answer their questions, well, it’s a fine start. Let’s hope that they continue as they have begun.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Power of Words

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As a writer, I believe in the power of words. They can anger, inspire, hurt, and move. Words are, quite literally, symbols, carrying a heavy load of meaning depending on how they are said or the context they are used in. Thus, I am a little bemused when journalists ask if the words used to describe the Ministries in Justin Trudeau’s new Cabinet will make a difference. Do they have no pride in their own profession?

Of course, the title of things is not simply so you can have an easy to say acronym. What you call a thing is what it becomes. So, to mention the word Science in not one but two Ministers’ titles says something about this government’s attitude towards science and the importance of evidence in decision making. Hence, the immediate restoration of the long form census – which Tony Clement suggests he now wishes he hadn’t abolished.

The words we use to indicate the job of a minister are exactly the words we will use to hold them accountable. Having added the words Climate Change to the Minister of Environment’s title says, quite bluntly, that this issue is now at the forefront of the government’s agenda. This creates great expectations that they will actually do something and, if they fail, it will be a major club which other parties can use to beat them up with.

Similarly, the Minister of Industry is now the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development – which suggests a substantially different focus for the things he will do and support. One of the great criticisms of Canada’s lack of economic performance is that our industries are not very good at innovation. They stick with the tried and the true – or keep their money in the bank. It is not entirely their fault – previous governments (and especially the Harper one) were inconsistent in their support for innovation. That has to change if the economy is going to grow.

And a growing economy is at the centre of the Liberal economic plan – economic growth leads to higher government revenues without the need to raise taxes and to quote Mr. Trudeau, “the deficit will take care of itself.” While this statement was mocked in election ads, it is actually basic economics as our previous PM must surely have known, right?

There are other words of importance, simply because they were stated without addition. Having a Minister for the Status of Women, without it simply being an add on to some other job as it has frequently been, indicates a real commitment to make women’s issues front and centre (as if having half the Cabinet women hadn’t already made that clear). Making it clear that there is a Minister of Science, a Minister of Democratic Institutions also make it clear that these are important priorities of the government.

I could go on but you get the picture. The next question is, of course, can they turn words into actions? I expect we’ll have the answer to that in the next hundred days.

But that’s ten minutes.

Senate Redux

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The Senate of Canada was not much discussed during the recent election – despite Tom Mulcair’s impossible pledge to abolish it if he won. As it turns out, he didn’t and neither did Stephen Harper, who had become positively pouty about the future of the Senate given the ruling of the Supreme Court and his own self-made scandals in the Red Chamber. Only the newly elected PM Justin Trudeau seemed to have a positive approach to reforming the place – though what that approach may be is still a mystery.

This morning, Senator Jim Munson was on the Ottawa radio talking about the possibilities. He has no more insight into Trudeau’s thinking than anyone else but he was sure that changes could be made that would return the Senate to its original purpose as a largely non-partisan house of ‘sober second thought.’ Although the Senate has long had partisan elements – it has never quite been what the media portrayed: a place of reward for past party service and a den for party bagmen. The radio host seemed dubious and suggested that Senator Munson was being overly optimistic that the current Senate could be made to work. His response was: why not? People clearly voted for optimism and ultimately politics is the art of the possible.

In fact, having worked in the Senate for the past 14 years, I can attest to the ability of most Senators to transcend partisan lines, as least on some issues. My boss, a Liberal from the Northwest Territories was able to find plenty of common ground on aboriginal issues with Senator Gerry St. Germain, a Conservative from BC and one of the key architects of the merger of the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives. There are few men more partisan than St. Germain, yet common ground could be found and positive work was done across party lines.

My own observation is that a lot of Senators arrive in the Senate with sharply honed fighting instincts – ready to take on the enemy, only to discover that those across the floor are not enemies but colleagues or as Trudeau put it in the election campaign, not enemies but neighbours.

Still, there is much to be done. Not all the Conservatives may be willing to give up their partisan ways – though the decidedly less partisan approach of the ‘liberated’ Liberal senators suggests that there is hope that many of them will be willing to work collaboratively with the new government. I certainly can’t see the Senate blocking significant amounts of legislation in the face of the mandate Trudeau received from the public just 10 days ago.

I also suspect that some Conservatives will welcome the opportunity to be less partisan. While a few relish the fight, others have seemed frustrated and even embarrassed by the imposition of party talking points. With the substantial reduction of the central party apparatus (no ministers’ staff, no PMO), many may take the opportunity to become more statesmanlike, more Senatorial in their approach. Some may even declare themselves to be independent or to hive off into separate caucuses. I suspect some may even chose to resign and do something else.

Meanwhile, the hard work of creating a new appointment process that further reduces the partisan nature of the Senate will be an early priority of the new PM. And in the Senate a serious discussion of the rules – started this week in a bi-partisan meeting of Senators – will be needed to make the relationship to government clearer and ensure that the Senate committees can function and the Chamber’s legislative functions can proceed.

Who knows? If our Senate can get over its partisan wrangling, maybe it will be a model for other dysfunctional upper chambers elsewhere in the world (I’m looking at you, Washington) but more of that later.

Because that’s ten minutes. (P.S. 10 minutes may – or may not – take a two day break while attending a SF convention In Ottawa this weekend, but I’ll definitely be back on Monday).

Life on the Fringe

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Have you ever chaired a meeting of the Anarchist Party? No? Well, neither has anyone else. Anarchists, by their nature, argue with everyone, including, I suspect, themselves. When I was involved in left wing politics in university, the old joke was – what do you get if you put two Trotskyites in a room? Three political parties.

Such is life on the fringe of politics. In Canada, like everywhere else in the world, there are literally more than a dozen political parties (currently there are 23 registered with Elections Canada). Most of these parties never elect anyone to Parliament; most of them barely qualify as parties, struggling to retain members or even leaders. Made up of mostly iconoclasts, they seldom have a coherent party platform let alone a strategy of gaining seats.

One of the great bugaboos of proportional representation is that it will lead to a proliferation of small parties and permanent minority or coalition governments. While the latter is often true (though not always, stable majority coalitions of similar parties is often the rule), the former is not particularly a disease of PR systems. Majoritarianism which isolates specific communities or interest groups can lead to the creation of a multitude of regional parties that succeed in gaining seats if not power in first past the post systems.

In Canada, we have the example of the Bloc Quebecois – formed by those in Quebec who feel their interests are not met in a united Canada. The heavily Western based Reform party was no different – a regional party of people who felt alienated by the policies of the central government.

In the United Kingdom, there are now 11 political parties with seats in Westminster. This is the same number as found in Israel and two less than in the Italian Parliament. When you count in parties represented in local governments, there are as many parties in England as there are in any other democracy in the world. The difference is, of course, that despite the fracturing of the vote, the vast majority of seats go to the few parties who gain a significant number of votes. For example, the Conservative party gained a majority in the last election with a mere 36.9% of the vote. The Labour party, with just over 30% gained far more seats than all the other parties combined (who had nearly 33% of the vote).

The situation in the UK now is that the government can safely ignore the interests of the majority of citizens and still get re-elected. First Past the Post has created a virtual dictatorship.

This is, of course, a fairly recent phenomenon, created by the increasing ghettoization of national and economic interests. As British communities grow more divided on religious and ethnic lines, they are likely to see more political fragmentation rather than less. Protest parties – with no interest beyond their sense of grievance – will become the norm and the UK may well become ungovernable as a result.

Hopefully, matters will never come to such a head in Canada. A sensibly designed proportional representation system – with minimum cut-offs for representation in Parliament – will permit regional and other interests to have a real voice in government without overwhelming Parliament with a proliferation of disparate and angry voices – as is now the case in the mother of the Westminster system, England.

And that’s ten minutes.